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(Shanachie 78041 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/8/2000)
Irish and Celtic music have certainly enjoyed a revival in recent years, and the influence is being felt in everything from pop and rock performers, to pennywhistles being added to new age music. While some of the long-time performers in traditional music such as the Chieftains have enjoyed a good deal of popularity in the US, there is a younger generation of Celtic groups who are bringing new life into the style by going beyond the strictly traditional.
Arguably the best of the younger Celtic bands is Solas, who have just released their fourth CD in as many years, called The Hour Before Dawn.
Solas is a genuinely Irish-American band with members from both sides of the Atlantic. It was founded by Pennsylvania-born Seamus Egan, who spent a few of his formative years in Ireland, where he developed a passion for traditional Irish music. By his late teens, he had won major instrumental awards at the prestigious All-Ireland music competition, winning on four different instruments, which no one had done before. After a couple of solo albums, and an association with the band Chanting House, Egan launched Solas in 1996 with other young, like-minded musical virtuosos, including fiddler Winifred Horan, a New York native who studied at the New England Conservatory of Music but also won competitions in Ireland, and Irish natives John Doyle and John Williams. Solas' eponymous debut album received almost universal acclaim, with its combination of astonishing musicianship and a great sense of spirit. The group achieved a wonderful balance between respect for the traditional and musical adventurousness. In 1997, accordionist Mick McAuley replaced Williams but Solas only got better over the course of their next two CDs.
But before the making of The Hour Before Dawn, their original vocalist Karan Casey departed to pursue a solo career. And although a fair portion of Solas' music is instrumental, Ms. Casey was an important part of the group's sound. Last year, Solas recruited Dierdre Scanlan, also an Irish native, to replace Ms. Casey. Although Ms. Scanlan nicely fits into the Solas sound, her style is a bit more like the English folk singers than her predecessor. In fact, I find Ms. Scanlan frequently reminiscent of the Pentangle's Jacquie McShee.
On each successive record, Solas has broadened their sound some, doing for instance, a Woody Guthrie song in Celtic style. The Hour Before Dawn also attempts to expand the group's horizons, with some results more being successful than others. It also seems that there was conscious attempt to aim for a somewhat wider audience, by including a pop song recorded by Sarah McLachlan, and incorporating drums and bass on several of the tracks. While I felt that a couple of the tracks seemed musically "dumbed down" compared to their past work, Solas also extends their eclecticism to adding instruments like tabla, and including more songs sung in Gaelic. But the musicianship is always first-rate.
The album begins with one of the pieces sung in Gaelic, which translates as Sheila Would Have a Lovely Man. The song is about a boy who falls in live with a girl, whose mother disapproves of him, until it becomes apparent that he has money. The arrangement, though maintaining its Irish character, includes a number of other influences, including a bit of jazziness, and an almost Spanish approach to guitar. Ms. Scanlan's pleasing vocal resemblance to the English folk singers like Ms. McShee becomes apparent. <<>>
Despite Solas' notable vocals, the group is also known as much for its whirlwind sets of instrumental reels and jigs. The first such track on the album is a trio of reels including Granny Quinn's, The Lilac Reel, and Sporting Pat. To the group's standard instrumentation is added bassist Chico Huff and percussionist John Anthony for a lively performance that allows various members of the group to be featured. <<>>
Last of the Great Whales is a more contemporary song, written in 1986 by one Andy Barnes. It's a nice piece with an environmental message, ably performed by the group in a slower, almost plaintive style. <<>>
A Miner's Life is a fine traditional song about coal mining which has relevance to the history of the industry on both sides of the Atlantic. The lead vocal is by guitarist John Doyle, his first for a Solas album, though since the making of this CD, he announced his departure from the group. The upbeat, arrangement adds much to the song. <<>>
One of the most striking tracks on the CD is When My Love and I Parted, performed mostly acapella by Ms. Scanlan, though the accompaniment features some multiply overdubbed violins by Ms. Horan, and an ominous synthesizer drone. Ms. Scanlan's simple, unadorned, direct vocal style makes the piece all the more powerful. <<>>
Among the instrumentals, perhaps the most intriguing is Boy/Girl Tune written by accordionist McAuley. With its odd time signature and vaguely exotic tonalities, it takes on a distinctly Eastern flavor, underscored by the use of exotic percussion. The result is both fascinating and rhythmically infectious. <<>>
Solas does an old ballad called Bonnie Mae, one of those songs from a period before there was any such thing as the electronic media to provide people with stories of sex and violence, so the song served that purpose. This piece is said to have been written in the Sixteenth Century by an aide to Mary, Queen of Scots. But Solas' performance has a distinctly contemporary sound with a bouncy rhythm and electric guitar accompaniment. <<>>
Seamus Egan has written music for films, and his early solo album found an audience among new age fans. The new Solas CD features a tune called Homeless by Egan, that goes in that direction somewhat. With its synthesizer textures and repetitive structure, it makes pleasant listening, but certainly lacks the depth and musical content that marks most of the group's best music. <<>>
The album ends with a remake of I Will Remember You, a tune first recorded by Sarah McLachlan, but so-written by Egan originally for his film soundtrack for The Brothers McMullen. McLachlan also recorded it on her own live album. Solas takes up the tune, and gives it a more Irish sound, but it remains a pop song, and as such, seems a bit of of place on this otherwise fascinating album. <<>>
On their new fourth release The Hour Before Dawn, Solas underscores their position as one of the finest contemporary Irish and Celtic groups in the world. Their eclectic approach and amazing musicianship, combined with their respect for the traditions, wins accolades from listeners and critics everywhere, appealing both to those who like their music on the traditional side, and those who are intrigued by the mixing of Celtic influences with other genres. Their new singer Dierdre Scanlan is a worthy addition to the group, providing a somewhat different approach than her predecessor, with Ms. Scanlan taking more of an English folk approach. But because of the group's apparent attempts to broaden their audience to pop fans, by including for example the Sarah McLachlan song, I don't think that this stands as their best album. The pop and new age tracks seem like distractions.
That push toward pop audiences also extends to the recorded sound, with some of the tracks having an excessively compressed in-your-face sound for such mostly acoustic music, while other tracks have an admirable sonic treatment. The engineer for this Philadelphia-made recording was John Anthony, who also played percussion on the CD, and performed similar duties on the group's last album.
The state of the art for Celtic music continues to rise. Solas is one of the genre's bright lights, and although The Hour before Dawn may not be their finest recording overall, the group nevertheless continue to take the music to new heights.
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