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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1402

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Cathie Ryan: The Farthest Wave
by George Graham

(Shanachie 78062 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/27/2005)

For more than quarter century, Celtic music has been flourishing and attracting audiences in the US. With the popularity of the Chieftains in America going back to the 1970s, and then with productions like Riverdance and movies with Celtic themes incorporating the music, and the popularity of Clannad on the New Age scene, it has been a period of considerable visibility for the music. A new generation of performers from both sides of the Atlantic have emerged who combine a sensitivity to the traditions with virtuosic musicianship, and a wide-ranging sense of musical eclecticism, who have in turn ushered in great period of creativity with lots of fine new original music being generated. That is epitomized by the band Solas, whose members are both American and Irish.

This week we have another outstanding new recording by one of the members of the newer generation of Celtic performers, who herself represents the transatlantic nature of the new Celtic and Irish music. She is Cathie Ryan, and her new CD is called The Farthest Wave.

Cathie Ryan grew up in Detroit to Irish-born parents who apparently always had a touch of homesickness. Surrounded by music in her home, and singing for most of her life, not surprisingly, Ms. Ryan gravitated into performing Celtic music. She became the lead vocalist for the popular band Cherish the Ladies. She released her first solo album in 1997, which featured guest appearances by members of Solas, and it soon attracted attention for her very appealing voice, and the tasteful musicianship.

The Farthest Wave is her fourth release, and it's her best yet. This time she performs a combination of original material, as well as the requisite traditional songs, plus songs by other contemporary artists. She is joined by multi-instrumentalist John McCusker, who produced the CD, which was mostly recorded in Yorkshire, England. Also a prominent and welcome presence is guitarist John Doyle, who was an original member of Solas. Doyle is one of the bright lights on the new Celtic scene incorporating some of the filigree of the English folk style in his playing, and always adding subtle but imaginative touches. Also a heard on most of the tracks is bassist Ewan Vernal, whose big rich acoustic instrument adds much to the sound.

This CD has a kind of loose theme that runs through it. Ms. Ryan calls it a "a recording about wanting to belong, somehow losing that sense of security and love; and what to do once that happens." She said that during the past two years she lost some loved ones, and, in her words, "With those losses went my support system. It put into very harsh relief who I really was, and how much I had inside me." But the tone of many of the song is not sorrow but of stoicism, reaffirmation and ultimately celebrating life. It's also some of the most downright beautiful music you're likely to hear. Ms. Ryan's voice is a wonderful combination of the ornamentation of the traditional style with more contemporary influences like the hint of the cool of a jazz singer, and a vaguely wistful quality that makes her voice one you'll have trouble getting out of your head, not that you would want to. Even when she sings in Irish Gaelic, one can't help but being affected by way she conveys the mood of a song. Interestingly, despite growing up in Detroit, Ms. Ryan often sings with a brogue.

The album opens with one of the original songs with lyrics by Ms. Ryan and music by guitarist John Doyle. What's Closest to the Heart is in keeping with the lyrical theme of the album. <<>>

The transatlantic aspect of the CD is evident on the following track, Rough and Rocky, and old bluegrass song first recorded by Flatt and Scruggs, and then Emmylou Harris, whose version inspired Ms. Ryan to take up the song. McCusker, Doyle and company give the song a decidedly different feel than the original. <<>>

One of the most memorable songs on this fine album was written by Irish musician John Spillane, called The Wild Flowers. Ms. Ryan wrote that when she first heard the song, it affected her "on a very deep level." Ms. Ryan and her group give us a beautifully understated version, focusing on the great composition, and Ms. Ryan's wonderful vocal. <<>>

The title song, The Farthest Wave, an original by Ms. Ryan, is another gem. It's a meditation on separation. <<>>

Most Celtic groups include some instrumental jigs and reels. Ms. Ryan gives us a couple of dance-like tracks sung in Gaelic. Dance the Baby is a set of slip-jigs. The lyrics are translated in the CD booklet, and are basically an invitation to dance. <<>>

Another highlight of the album is Follow the Heron, written by Karine Polwart, who is enlisted to do some backing vocals. It's another song of hope in the wake of loss. <<>>

As the Evening Declines is based on traditional lyrics, again taking a hopeful view, in this case by an aging woman. <<>>

Another of the danceable tracks is a traditional piece whose Gaelic title translates as You Are Your Mother's Little Pet, which incorporates an original, but traditional-sounding reel written by John McCusker called Joseph's Reel. Again, it's nicely done by all involved, including some children who were brought in to add some backing vocals. <<>>

The CD ends with its most unexpected track, Home Sweet Home, the old song which Ms. Ryan says she learned as a child in school. She and her colleagues re-invent the song, creatively altering the melody and harmony somewhat. It seems to add an even more sentimental mood to the piece, which sums up the feeling of so many of the Irish diaspora over the years. <<>>

Irish-American singer-songwriter Cathie Ryan's new CD The Farthest Wave is a superb recording that further raises the bar on the Irish and Celtic scene. Her superb and subtly multifaceted vocals, the very tasteful playing by the accompanying musicians and the excellent choice of material makes this a memorable recording you'll want to go back to time and time again. And after you move beyond just the sublime sound of the music, lyrically the album is also notable for its generally hopeful and positive lyrics, in both the traditional and original material.

For our sonic grade, we'll give the CD close to an "A." The mix deserves kudos, and Ms. Ryan's vocals are very well recorded, as is the rich sound of the acoustic bass. But the dynamic range is not quite at audiophile level.

Cathie Ryan's new CD is emphatic confirmation that we are living in a very good time for Celtic music. It's a superb album that could easily find an audience beyond the Celtic music community, and attract even more fans to the scene.

(c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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