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(Compass Records 4527 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/6/2010)
If there is a Rodney Dangerfield of musical instruments -- not getting a lot of respect -- it's the accordion. And I suppose that reputation is well-earned, from the instrument's association with Lawrence Welk, polkas, and cheesy versions of Lady of Spain. But like everything in art, creative people can almost always make something interesting out of humble ingredients. The accordion did experience something of a revival in the 1980s and with a number of rock bands bringing out the instrument, and the revival of interest in Cajun and Zydeco music put the squeezebox front and center.
Accordion has long been a part of Irish music, and quite a few Celtic bands include what they call "the box," and this week, we have a new recording by an Irish accordionist who has taken her instrument to lots of interesting places, and has a jolly good time in the process. It's Sharon Shannon, and her CD bears the title Saints and Scoundrels.
Sharon Shannon has become a fairly ubiquitous player in her home country and in the UK. She has released several CDs, but also been called upon as a studio or supporting touring musician with the likes of Bono, Sinead O'Connor, Mark Knopfler, and on this side of the Atlantic, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Alison Krauss, and John Prine. Her last CD Galway Girl sold very well in her home country.
Her musical associations have been pretty eclectic in her capacity as a supporting musician, and on her own new recording, she lets that eclecticism run to the hilt. She is joined by an interesting bunch of musicians, from traditional to punk rockers, in a CD that also takes in roots rock, a bit of jazziness and even some Celtic influence. Among her musical guests are some of the original members of the Irish band the Waterboys, plus Shane MacGowan, the lead singer from the Pogues, and a kind of a jug band called the Cartoon Thieves. The tracks vary in personnel, with the different guests featured on various tracks, but they are all obviously having a good time.
In addition to her button accordion, Ms. Shannon is also heard on pennywhistles and some fiddle. The one thing she doesn't do it sing, and that's where the guest artists come in. She also has a more or less regular band of Irish musicians on the CD for when there are none of the notable guests. The CD includes five instrumentals among its 12 tracks, and they also run the range of styles Ms. Shannon includes in her recording. The title of the CD, named after a song by the Waterboys, was meant to convey the motley bunch of people and styles on the album.
It opens with a tune featuring the Cartoon Thieves, Mama Lou which epitomizes the wide-ranging influences and sense of fun that pervades the CD, running as it does from jug band to rock to Vaudeville. <<>>
The first of the instrumentals Howya Horse? continues in a jaunty mood with Ms. Shannon on both accordion and the fiddles by means of overdubbing. A bit incongruous but adding to the good-natured sound are the saxophones of Richie Buckley. <<>>
The Waterboys, or at least three of their original members including vocalist Mike Scott, make their appearance on what is almost the title track Saints and Angels. It's a song that was written originally for the Waterboys' album Fisherman's Blues, but for some reason not included. It finally gets recorded here, and it's a nice addition to the CD, with the arrangement given a kind of roots-rock treatment. <<>>
Another of the guests is Imelda May, who is a rockabilly performer from Ireland. That kind of cultural dichotomy comes out in the track Go Tell the Devil. The result is Emerald Green honky-tonk that's a lot of fun. <<>>
About the most traditionally-Irish sounding piece on the CD is the instrumental tune called Hillbilly Lilly and Buffalo Benji. Again Ms. Shannon plays the fiddles as well as the accordion, along with the pennywhistles. <<>>
Irish singer Carol Keogh, who was a part of a band called Automata, makes an appearance on the track Shifting Summer Sands, a nice song with a nautical theme that she co-wrote with Ms. Shannon. <<>>
While most of this CD is upbeat and energetic, there is one slow air that is very nicely performed. It's an original piece called Cape Clear and the instrumentation is Ms. Shannon's accordion, plus piano and nylon-string guitar. <<>>
Pogues founder Shane MacGowan makes his appearance on the closing track Rake at the Gates of Hell & the Scoundrel's Halo. MacGowan puts in a kind of trademark appearance, while the band is quite tight in a good rock and Celtic folk mix. <<>>
Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon's new CD Saints and Scoundrels is a good-natured exercise in mixing it up stylistically. With the various guests, and Ms. Shannon's own eclectic tendencies and background, this is definitely your grandfather's accordion recording. It's very nicely done, the musicianship is great, and it's all approached in a spirit of good fun.
For the our sound quality grade, we'll give Saints and Scoundrels an A-minus for good mix and clarity, and dynamic range that is not too bad, but could have been better. The mastering engineer could not resist the temptation to squash the sound with volume compression.
Perhaps the one remaining question about Sharon Shannon's new CD is what category should it be put in. Calling it Irish accordion music is technically correct but will definitely give the wrong impression. It is another excellent example of music that deftly escapes stereotypes, and in the process makes for memorable listening.
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