Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola – An Raicín Álainn (2002) review A CeltCast Classic
We have been writing reviews for you since 2014 starting with
Earth Warrior album. Since that first review many bands have passed our ears and we have happily told you about a lot of them. But it also means that there is a huge void of music that we have never written about. The pagan folk scene, the music that forms the roots of this station, is about 20 years old (If you take
2002 Zauberspruch album as a starting point.) The ‘modern’ Celtic folk scene goes back decades earlier even, with bands like
popularizing the style in the late 60’s. And I don’t even want to mention the traditional folk scene, with a history that goes back for centuries.
The CeltCast Classic series is meant to look back at the rich history of folk music and wants to highlight the beautiful albums that were made before there was CeltCast. The time we all at the station were ‘just’ fans. Now I could focus on the big names, the albums that everyone knows, the classics so to say…. But is is much nicer to dig up those smaller, less known gemstones that were made. The albums that some may have forgot about. An Raicín Álainn by the Irish Singer Lasairfhíona
is such an album. But it is so worth listening to that I’ll gladly pull it out of the shadows and into the spotlights one more time. I hope I can convince you all to give it a listen, I promise you, you won’t be sorry.
Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola or in short Lasairfhíona is a folk singer that comes from Inisheer, one of the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland. As she herself says in the booklet coming with the album, Lasairfhíona learnt how to sing even before she could talk. With her style of singing deeply rooted in Inisheer’s sean-nós singing tradition, it was not a surprise her interest went further than ‘just’ Celtic singing and she became a graduate in Celtic studies from Trinity College Dublin.
It was in 1998 when she was ‘discovered’ by
and was featured as one of the lead vocalists on his Irish sacred songs compilation Lights In The Dark. In 2002 she released the subject of this review, her first solo album An Raicín Álainn at the
Lorient Festival Interceltique,
an album that got here a lot of positive feedback. Hot Press Music Magazine called it one of the best folk albums of 2002 and fRoots Magazine said it was: ‘one of the most sumptuous traditional albums to have emerged for some time.‘
It got Lasairfhíona a lot of attention including a special documentary on the RTÉ Léargas television series (directed by Moira Sweeney) in 2002; concerts as prestigious as the Montreux Jazz festival; television exposure; and even a guest appearance on
Goodnight DVD, on the track Thank You, You’ve Been A Lovely Audience. She worked with Hector Zazou again on her song Dragonfly, a song that was used in the presentation of the 2004/2005 fall/winter collection of the fashion designers Prada, Issey Miyake, Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Chou. Her success continued into 2006 as her second album Flame Of Wine came out gaining the young singer even more praise, including a nomination for a
Meteor Irish Music Award
…. And then the internet goes all quiet. The silence was broken in 2016 when her third album One Penny Portion was released, but other than a few appearances on several compilation albums there isn’t much more I could find. Not including the fact that she clearly isn’t forgotten by the Irish folk stations, who regularly feature her music in their programs. And that is exactly what I’m going to do right now, right here, so cue spotlight: ‘…Spotlight on!!!!‘
An Raicín Álainn
Opening song An Raicín Álainn gives you a perfect feel for what to expect of the whole album. minimalistic beauty. In this case a single guitar, a lone violin and a beautiful voice. That is it. Nothing more is needed anyway. Lasairfhíona’s voice is the main feature of this whole album. It is warm, delicate, tender and emotional all at the same time. She sings in the lower female regions and she has a lovely almost whispered, ever so slight hoarseness to it that makes it extremely beautiful. I can listen to her sing all week long. (Actually I did during the writing of this review.)
The second song; Bean Pháidín (Páidín’s Wife) immediately shows another strength of this album, it’s variety. Although the whole album is intimate and almost minimalistic in instrument choice, it still has a huge variety in feel and tune. If An Raicín Álainn werre a small watercolour painting ‘coloured’ with acoustic guitar and violin, then Bean Pháidí would be a fun pencil drawing sketched with only the aid of a lone bodhrán and a low ‘drone’ sound giving the song its body. A real powerful song in all its simplicity. I also love the combination of the Irish Gaelic language and the beat of the bodhran. I never realized that Irish Gaelic is such a rhythmical language with its strong ‘ch’, ‘th’ ‘mi’ and ‘shh’ sounds. It is as if I hear her voice ‘clapping’ along with the rhythm of the tune.
Caisleán Gearr is the first of the three acapella song, showcasing Lasairfhíona’s full talents as a singer. I imagine this to be in the sean-nón singing tradition of Inis Oírr (Inisheer). Which brings up the question what IS the sean-nós singing tradition? To quote Wikipedia for an answer: ‘Sean-nós singing (Irish for ‘old style’) is unaccompanied traditional Irish vocal music usually performed in the Gaelic language. Sean-nós singing usually involves very long melodic phrases with highly ornamented and melismatic melodic lines.’
It does describe this heartfelt ballad of a unreachable love of a man for a fair lady he met at Caisleán Gearr (Castlegar) perfectly.
I found a short article on
where we get some more information about Lasairfhíona’s musical roots. In this 2005 article it says the following:
On the Aran Islands, where Lasairfhíona Ni Chonaola grew up, there is a big singing tradition that grew into the sean-nós style. Although Lasairfhíona is regularly connected with that style, she rather not be labeled as such:
– “On the islands there were just songs,” She says in an interview with The Irish Times: “We just sang songs. We didn’t call them sean-nós. I came from a sean-nós background, but I live in the modern time, too, so there are inevitably influences there.’ In an interview with the Sunday times she underlines this will to express herself without the bounderies of musical label limiting her artistic possibillitys even more. Tradition is clearly important but artistic freedom evenso: – “There is something in the islands, a sense of mystery. It’s hard to define what’s special about them; but I was quite privileged to be raised there. The song and the singer were appreciated, there was silence for a person that sang, so it gave me the confidence to sing I expected to be listened to. “But I also live in the modern era. I wasn’t brought up with a gramophone, so there are influences from nowadays and you have to go with that. You can’t live in the past. It’s why I like living in the city and on the island. On the island I can relax with the sea around me, then go to the hustle and bustle of the city.”
reading how Lasairfhíona expresses her love for the relaxing sea in the interview fragment above, it is an easy bridge to Oileán Na Teiscinne (The Isle Of Teiscinn), the next song I want to pick up on. You can feel every ounce of that love reaching you through your speakers as this song starts. You can hear the tide gently coming in. The calmness of the waves, combined with an almost meditative guitar tune will instantly calm you down. The soft, single-voiced ‘choir’ in the background, and Lasairfhíona spoken lyrics over it are the icing on the cake. One of the best songs on this album in my opinion.
After the poetic calmness of Oileán Na Teiscinne, comes the more serene calmness of Banríon Loch Na Naomh (The Queen Of Loch Na Naomh), a duet between harp and voice, a typical folk ballad about a not-so-typical meeting between a ghostly lady and a limbless warrior in the deep of the Celtic night.
What I especially notice in this song is how Lasairfhíona just let’s her voice flow naturally while singing. She sounds as if she is at the very limit of her high voice in this song, sometimes maybe even a wee bit above it, but she just goes with it. Allowing her voice to break a bit while it reaches for that softly whispered high note, making the sound even more intense, more vulnerable and eerie, but therefore more beautiful than it would have been if she used her obvious singing technique to form the note perfectly. It makes Banríon Loch Na Naomh another of the many favourites of mine on this album.
Talking about favourites, I feel a big smile inside every time Bímse Féin Ag Iascaireacht is playing. It is the odd one out on this CD, as the lead vocals are not by Lasairfhíona, but by her dad, MacDara Ó Chonaola, a poet who wrote several of the songs on An Raicín Álainn. The song itself is a fun singalong accompanied by bodhrán, with Lasairfhíona on backing vocals. In this song it becomes clear that the vocal talent runs in the family, as MacDara could easily be featured as one of the lead vocalists of
(In all fairness I thought he was at first)
MacDara Ó Chonaola is not the only person contributing to this lovely debut album. We hear
on tin & low whistle,
Johnny McDonagh (former De Dannan)
on Clàrsach (the Celtic harp),
on piano accordion and bells, and
on fiddle, viola and piano, who all add their delicate parts to Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola’s music. And I say that deliberately, as all musicians play purely in service of Lasairfhiona’s voice. the instruments seem to be there like illustrations in a well written book,to enhance the intensity of the story.
This feeling is even more enhanced by the beautiful production of the music by Máire Breatnach. She and Lasairfhíona carefully selected the instruments each song needed, with a clear ‘less is more’ approach, giving each song its very own colour. Be it the gentle colour of guitar and fiddle, the ancient combination of harp and vocals, the rich colour of the guitar and viola, the ‘classical’ combination of piano and tin whistle, the romantic sound of the piano accordion and a distant bell, ore no colour at all, as are the beautiful acapella songs on An Raicín Álainn or the sketched pencil stripes of the bodhrán/vocal combination.
Due to these carefully made choices this is the most intimate album I have heard in a long while. I have often described in reviews how I had the feeling the artists were sitting right there with me in my living room, but with this album it is the other way around. I have the distinct impression I was lucky enough to walk into the space Lasairfhíona was in, singing to herself. Every time I hear it the sound stops me in my tracks, leaving me with the deep urge to quietly sit down in a corner, disappear into the shadow and listen, just listen.
The first time I clearly had that urge was listening to Banríon Loch Na Naomh, but it happened a couple of times. When listening to Tonnta Chonamara (The Waves Of Connemarra) for instance, or the acapella song Amhrán An Phúc. But find the feeling especially strong listening to De Thaisme (Coincidence), a song Lasairfhíona is lilting, only accompanied by the bodhrán. Lasairfhíona’s whispered singing style feels almost introvert in this song, and the clever reverb on the bodhrán and her voice even enhance that feeling. Musical simplicity in all its beauty.
Another example of that ‘introvert’ singing style is Ar Bhruacha Na Laoi even though it is one of the more richly arranged songs on this album. The viola melody gives it a suprisingly Eastern feel, in the direction of
Nine Million Bicycles. Come to think of it, Katie Melua has that same whispered, delicate, almost introvert singing style I find so beautiful in lasairfhióna’s voice.
All in all this is just a beautiful debut album. As I said in the intro, after this Lasairfhíona went on to release Flame Of Wine in 2005 and One Penny Portion in 2016, both also well produced beautiful folk albums, well worth listening to, but it is the intimate magic that Lasairfhíona, Máire Breatnach, and all the other musicians captured on An Raicín Álainn that makes this album stand out for me.
A true folk Classic, well worth putting the spotlight on one more time.
Cover art: MacDara O’Conaola
Quotes taken from:
Tir Nan Og – Sing, Ye Bastards (2020)
Dear reader, get yourself a comfy seat, a nice slice of Irish barmbrack, and a good glass of fine Irish whiskey, ’cause this review may take a while. Analysing
Tir Nan Og‘s
fifth album Sing, Ye Bastards! left me with five pages of notes and an instant urge to tell you all about it. For those of you who want to have dinner early, here is the short version: if you like good old Irish party folk with a cool stadium rock production, this is your CD. Get your best boots on, finish your Irish stew, make sure you get yourself to the nearest pub, and party it down till the break of dawn. (Or all the booze is gone, whichever comes first).
So, now that the warning is out, I can go all nerdy on this CD without feeling guilty about it. After their strong 2018 album From The Gallows, Matze (violin, nyckelharpa), Sarah (flute, vocals), Joggl (four-string electric bass), Robert (guitar, vocals), Andi (whistles, pipes, vocals) and Volker (drums, bodhrán) have released yet another hit album, full of weird hooks, cool riffs, and groovy breaks bound to give you the best evening you’ve had in a long time!
Now I do realize that names like Matze, Joggl, and Volker don’t sound particularly Irish, and you would be right in that assumption. Tir Nan Og is a Bavarian band, but I didn’t really notice. “Cool Irish band,” it says in my first notes: “Is that female vocalist American?”.
No rest for the listener
Not surprising because Sing Ye Bastards! feels Irish from the very first note played. A fast, catchy violin riff starts it all, a first drum break follows within seconds, effortlessly flowing into a catchy verse with an added whistle for some bonus Irish cheer. The chorus is an instant sing-along affair that then flows into a short violin solo with groovy bass to keep your feet moving. Back is the drum break, some first epic female backing vocal, it’s all there…, and we are only 90 seconds in the song. Damn, this band is something else! They throw all their strengths at you, and almost all at once. Strong male and female vocals, more musical twists in one song than you would normally hear on a whole album, even a 10-second drum solo towards the end, and we are still only talking about the first song on the album! “God almighty, have mercy on our souls” the band sings. “God almighty, have mercy on our hearts” I say. This is something else!
The official video for Fear Gorta
For a wee moment, I think I will be able to catch my breath on the second song: Last Order. That thought only lasts for the slow acapella intro Tir Nan Og sing. After that the drums, bass, and bagpipes take control of my feet again, and of I whizzing go. Someone tell the devil and ‘mye’ wife that they’ll have to wait a while, pour me another pint, and let me dance!! This stuff is awesome! The only moments you are allowed to catch your breath are the moments of silence separating the songs from each other.
Ok! Hold on! Time to get out of the Maelstrom, to swallow a Green Pill, slow down, and get some sense out of myself.
Soooo, to say something sensible: Tir Nan Og plays a very catchy version of punky Irish folk-rock. Extremely catchy actually. The cool thing is that they do that mostly acoustically. No distorted guitars, no screaming vocals, no nothing of that. Just the power of good old acoustic instruments, strong vocals, a slick production, and some darned good songwriting. Let’s start with that last bit first as it is the stand-out thing in my opinion. Tir Nan Og have a knack for surprising you, every 20 seconds it seems. Twists, breaks, solos, harmonies, they play with it as if they were a prog band. Fear Gorta, Last Order, Maelstrom, the whole album is just full with them, making this a highly entertaining album.
Tir Nan Og, a steaming folk band
So what are we talking about style-wise? Again, Tir Nan Og go for variety. Fear Gorta and Last Order are steaming acoustic party punk-folk songs, Maelstrom reminds me of the latest
album, especially in the vocals. Highlight in this song is Matze’s furious violin solo. I’m pretty sure sparks were coming off his strings when he played that in the studio. What I also love are the harmonies. The three voices of Robert, Sarah and Andi fit nicely together giving the music even more power, but that violin solo…darn, that one is addictive!
The Wanderings Of Oisin gives a more poppy feel to Tir Nan Og’s folk-punk. The intro keeps reminding me of something, but I couldn’t tell you what it is. It doesn’t matter. Again the whole song is catchy as hell. Especially the flute melody Sarah treats us with. Another strong part of Tir Nan Og’s sound is Joggl’s bass playing, not only on this song but over the whole album. I love the groove he adds to the songs. It gives Tir Nan Og’s music even more power, and a lot more dance credibility. Getting back to The Wanderings of Oisin; the chorus at the very end of this song, featuring Sarah on vocals, is one of those many cool curveballs the band constantly throws at you, as is the surprising acapella end.
With the song Green Pill, the feel of the music starts to shift from acoustic punk-folk towards folk-rock, but still with a strong Irish flavour to it. Let’s call it a nice blend of German punk-rockers
and our own
A special mention has to go to Sarah’s whistle solo halfway through the song and the violin finishing it all off weaving in another famous tune. [Editors note: That would be Cooley’s Reel]
We’ve Been Everywhere has that same rock anthem feel to it. A big part of that can be attributed to the production. Where the previous album, From The Gallows (2018), still had a rougher, more punky feel to it, the production of Sing, Ye bastard! is fuller, rounder; there are more layers in the vocals, more effects; the bass and drums have more ‘oomph’. it all adds up towards a strong stadium rock feel which I love. I also love the
“weird” Al Yankovic
rap-part Andi pulls out of the bag in this song, soon to be followed by what seems to be a guest appearance of the
Red Hot Chilli Pipers.
Go Andi, go Andi!!!
One song further and we go Greek, combined with a fun bit of German Hoompha folk for good measure. There are many bands that say they have no limits when writing music. Tir Nan Og clearly wants to take that statement one step further! So Sláinthe is a mix of Greek, Irish, and German influences. Next song I Sold My Soul starts with a bagpipe riff that could easily have been written by
Iain Alexander Marr. The song itself is a catchy Pyrolysis-type folk-rock anthem.
The second single: I sold My Soul
On Stone Cold Heart Sarah gets to show off her vocal talents. Both she and Robert have big voices that can easily hold their own against the powerhouse folk the band is playing. I’m just loving all of this, song after song. Every song has its own cool moment, its own cool twist. Listen to those driving drums in Stone Cold Heart. If you didn’t hear those folky whistles and violin tunes it could just as well be a drum fill by funk-rockers
Especially when Joggl joins in on his electric bass to “funk” everything up even more; one of the few moments the band goes into a distorted overdrive. Sarah’s strong vocals finish this power ballad perfectly.
Sea of Sorrow is the first real moment of peace on Sing, Ye bastard!. An acoustic ballad that could easily be found on a
album, with Robert taking on the role of George Kooymans. I’m loving Robert’s vocals throughout the whole album. Just like Sarah, he has the perfect voice for this band. Strong, powerful, with just the right amount of hoarseness, and capable of giving every song the colour it needs. May I also highlight the harmonies that brighten up the whole album? They pop up all over the place, but the most beautiful one has to be the ending of Sea Of Sorrow. Goosebumps.
The surpises keep on coming
Tir Nan Og are stíll not done surprising me. The Song Remains almost starts like a soundtrack, quickly flowing into something I can only describe as symphonic prog-folk with a touch of theatre in it. The call and response singing lines at 1:34 even remind me of
Are there no limits to the things this band will include in their music?!?!?! Speaking of Ayreon, I could swear the flute solo following after that could have been played by
Thijs van Leer
one of the prominent guest musicians on Ayreon’s The Electric Castle.
I think by now it’s clear Tir Nan Og are not ‘just’ a punky acoustic folk band. Nope, this is a full-grown folk-rock unit. Inventive in their songwriting, cheeky in every note they play, with a strong link to their Irish folk roots…
The final twist
Now we get to a fun moment. First I’ll let you read the original text I wrote to end this review:
‘…with a strong link to their folk roots. The
/Harmony Glen-like power ballad O’Hanlan’s Last Words for instance gives you clear proof of that. What a band…WHAT A BAND!!
And this is the final twist the band threw at me, it is Robert writing me in response of the review:
‘O’Hanlon’s Last Words was actually performed by Harmony Glen as a guest track on this CD. (A cover of a song from our last CD).
That would explain why I thought it sounded a lot like Harmony Glen yes (blushes). And with all of you laughing it is time to round up this review.
It is high time for CeltCast to host their own St. Patrick’s day folk-rock concert. I say put Tir Nan Og top of the bill, co-headlining with Harmony Glen of course, and Pyrolysis as support act. Now that would be an evening! Can I already reserve my tickets!? Pretty please!?
Tir Nan Og performing live at Folk Am Neckar (2019)
Cover art: Santana Raus: Santichan illustration
pictures: Andi Fingas
Picture editing: Andre Freitag
Shane Ó Fearghail – Born From Tradition (2020)
The first reviews of 2022 seem to have a common theme: these are the reviews of the golden voices. Look at the list:
Morten Alfred Høirup,
Gillian Frame and
they all released stunning albums highlighting their unique vocal talents. In this review we continue this theme as
Shane Ó Fearghail
is another one blessed with a golden voice.
Shane is a singer-songwriter, born in Dublin but now living in Vienna. He has released 3 albums until now: The Watcher & The comet (2009), Everything You Need (2012) and They Might See Dolphins (2016). His latest full-length album is called Born From Tradition, and it is his most intimate album by far.
Before I go deeper into Born From Tradition I want to dive into Shane’s back catalogue a bit. For the most part, there isn’t a note of folk to be heard. But I decided to ignore that small fact, as I loved what I was hearing. His first album, The Watcher & The Comet, is an indie-pop pearl. it contains alternative pop songs, reminding me of bands like
The Blue Aeroplanes,
and especially Crowded House,
but in this case sung by the singer-songwriter nephew of Jim Diamond (
or Feargal Sharkey (
). Songs like Round The Hardway; All Your Features; the power ballad Satellite (with a cool touch of
over it); Grace (with a stroke of
); actually the whole album is a must-have for fans of this style of music. Songs like Jesus I can Try; Mermaid (The Atlantean lullaby); and The Hero Of Waterloo showcase Shane’s love for storytelling ballads, something I will come back to later.
As an ’80s teen there is another thing I love about The Watcher & The Comet, its distinctive 80’s guitar sound. Listening to Shane’s first album makes me want to grab an old
or early Coldplay LP just to stay in the same vibe. Especially Mermaid (The Atlantean Lullaby) is a beautiful cross between Crowded House and Coldplay.
That specific 80’s sound is almost gone on the follow-up albums: Everything You Need Is Here (2012) and They Might See Dolphins (2016). Instead, we hear a cleaner sound, more in the direction of
with occasional string sections that seem to come straight from a later
album. Just listen to Who Came First, (the first song on Everything You Need Is Here) and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
You will hear the first folk influences pop up in songs like Hey Little Sister and It’s Up To You on Everything You Need Is Here. The folk influences become even more apparent on the album They Might See Dolphins. Just listen to Read Between The Lines, Chalk, but especially Faerie Tree (hello
and you will hear the Irish folk heritage clearly shining through.
BORN FROM TRADITION; A SINGER-SONGWRITER BALLADEER
Having said that, it is still a big step from the first three albums with their alternative band sound to the solo singer-songwriting balladeer Shane becomes on Born From Tradition. So I had to ask about it: What made him venture into his Irish musical heritage?
– ‘Well it starts with my granny Olive. She was a real Dubliner, a great woman from an older world. Irish and yet distinctly Dublin. The old songs and stories were part of her world and that tradition was passed on to us thankfully.
Born From Tradition, for now, is the closest I will get to the music I was reared on; the songs I learned and sang along to at family sessions; in my granny’s house in Dublin. The album, for me, is the proverbial salmon returning home to the safety of deep rock pools where it was born. Living away from Ireland during this pandemic, the songs on this album brought Ireland home to me. They are a celebration of my ballad background, my family, and our culture.’
I said in the intro that Shane has a love for storytelling ballads. Well, the Irish balladeer steps forward right away in the opening song I like It When You Try. Lyrics like: ‘We can talk about anything, cars, and cigarettes, but you don’t smoke and I don’t drive’ are typical singer-songwriter lines. Sometimes observative, sometimes personal, sometimes tongue in cheek, and effortlessly shifting from one to the other with every well-placed word. Lyrics like: ‘Sitting here looking for someplace to find; a place in myself where I have peace of mind; looking at faces for places to see; the wind in my hair; the breeze blowing easy’ (Roll On The Wind) remind me of
and his ability to weave sentences together in exactly the same way as Shane does.
Lyrics were always important to Shane, but on Born From Tradition, they come to the foreground even more. That is because the well-arranged pop sound of the earlier records is broken down to a single acoustic guitar melody. A lone violin, mandolin, accordion, or recorder is carefully placed in the music as if they are delicately illustrating the lyrics.
By the time I reach the third song Reynardine it is clear Shane O’Fearghail’s voice is the main feature on Born From Tradition. His melancholic voice is smooth as silk with a slightly hoarse finish, extremely pleasant to the ear. Combine that with his charming Irish accent and a strong vibrato that he uses to perfection to enhance the melancholic, nostalgic feel of the songs and it is clear why I see his voice as the highlight of Born Of Tradition. The musical arrangements make his voice shine even more. The music is soft, gentle, delicate, and never overpowering the voice. Our Ilona called it the “perfect hammock music” and I could not agree more.
Reynardine is the first of the traditional songs Shane selected for Born From Tradition. It is a song about a werefox luring beautiful women to an unknown fate. This type of historic folk ballad fits perfectly with the material by Shane’s own hand. As do the touching lyrics of Green Fields Of France or the unofficial anthem of Dublin, the folk ballad Molly Malone, clear links to granny Olive and the Dublin she knew. Shane goes even deeper into his Irish heritage with the Gaelic songs Trasna Na Gcianta and Ná Bí Buartha, songs he wrote together with Róisín Ní Bhriain, a friend of his.
FINDING THE MAGIC WITHIN
Now I have to admit, listening to this album I went through three phases. At first, I fell in love with Shane’s voice. Head over heels actually. How could I not with these lovely songs oozing out of my speakers, filling ymy room with a soft blanket of soothing goodness. But after a while I found myself losing a bit of concentration. The songs, as beautiful as they all are individually, seemed to become one gentle sweet sound that lasted the whole album. I was missing a moment of contrast, like a song similar to Faerie Tree from his previous album, just to shake things up a bit.
But then came phase three (!), and with it the true magic of Born From Tradition.
As I started diving into the lyrics the time suddenly flew by. Gone was my wish for contrast. Reading the lyrics Shane wrote, looking up the history behind the traditional songs he chose, made me realize Born From Tradition sounds exactly as it should. Shane put every side of himself into this record. Not only his memories of granny Olive and her Dublin; but also his respect for his Irish heritage; his personal views on the crazy world around us. All of a sudden I did recognize the build-up of this record. Not a build-up in the music as I was expecting, no, it was there in the themes Shane selected.
The first songs I Like It When You Try and Roll On The Wind are melancholic love ballads as only the Irish can sing them, full of longing for a lost love and the green fields of home.
With Reynardine, Trasna Na Gcianta, The Green Fields Of France, Molly Malone, and Ná Bí Buartha Shane pays homage to his Irish heritage. On the last bit of the album, the socially critical singer-songwriter comes out. It starts with Anyway, arguably the most beautiful ballad on Born Of Tradition. Sharp, perfectly sung, eenunciating e-ve-ry single word. I can only describe it as singer-songwriter magic. The lyrics are so strong: ‘Seáni was a poor one; grew up on a steel spoon; looking for a way out…‘ ‘turns out he’s the lucky one; he’s not the friend of a pistol or the bullet from a gun…‘ These words make my arm hairs stand on end. The poignant guitar melody makes it even better. What a song. It is followed by another razor-sharp singer-songwriter gemstone: New England. The message in this song is even stronger than in Anyway. So strong even that it will go too far to discuss in this review, instead I’ll just leave a link here to a blog Shane wrote about this song.
The last song on Born From Tradition ends the album as if it was a movie score. Raglan Road is the perfect end score to Born From Tradition. An odd comparison I know, but I can’t find a better one to explain it. It is just the twisted way my musical mind works I guess.
All in all Born from Tradition is a beautiful album with many interesting layers. A singer-songwriters delight. And the good news is, there is more to come.
On Bandcamp Shane already released an EP called Acoustic. According to Shane: ‘A collection of acoustic demo’s from previous albums or songs that are coming down the tracks. As for a follow-up on Born from Tradition: -‘I will do a follow-up Irish album soon, with more songs and Irish ballads. But that is next year or the year after. For now, I am concentrating on a new album which will be an uptempo Irish Appalachian affair. Due for a summer release 2022.
Well, speaking for myself, I can’t wait!
Cover art: Sabine Mann | sabinemann.Design
Picture: Sabine Mann
Mia Guldhammer & Morten Alfred Høirup – Tral, Tråd & Traditioner (2021) Review
In every scene you have certain people who seem to part of every band you know. In Holland the names Lies Sommer and Sophie Zaaijer come to mind. In Germany it’s
Fabi, and in Denmark, obviously, one of them is
At CeltCast, Mia is mostly known as the leading lady of the medieval folk band
but she also is the lead singer of the ‘electrophonic folk orchestra‘
and she teamed up with the French folk band
Dour/Le Pottier Quartet
(Not to be confused by the Norse jazz-pop band with the same name) a group that mixes Scandinavian folk vocals with a classical chamber music feel and a lovely Eastern European improvisation style. (find a link to a concert of them
Mia’s latest collaboration is with Danish folk guitarist and singer
Morten Alfred Høirup
and as always, the result is something special.
Before we dive into Tral, Tråd & Traditioner let’s further introduce Morten Alfred Høirup. Just like Mia, this composer, guitar player, singer, and folk radio DJ is a well-known face in the Danish folk scene, but has also built up a following in the American roots music scene. He is, or has been, a member of several folk groups, some more traditional Danish, some more adventures, mixing 50’s style swing with folk, explaining Morten Alfred’s popularity in the American roots scene. I’ll start with the more traditional groups first. Both are trios that play melodic accordion-oriented Danish balfolk. We have
the Gangspil trio
(2012 – 2017) and
trio Jensen, Bugge & Høirup
(still active). The Jensen, Brugge & Høirup trio feels the most traditional of the two I listened to. The Gangspil trio sounds a bit lighter, leaning slightly less on the distinctive sound of the accordion, but both are nice balfolk albums.
Two sides Morten Alfred’s music
Then there is Morten Alfred’s swing-jazz/ Scandinavian folk side. Again I found two bands on Spotify:
is the more laid-back, easy listening of the two. The other, the
American Café Orchestra,
will challenge the listener a lot more. The basis is also laid-back swing folk, but quite often it has a hidden sting: an experimental approach that will challenge the listener. Songs like Rain, Egyptian Domino Dance, or Grey Brothers’ Holiday are well worth checking out for the more adventurous folk fan.
Morten Alfred has also been involved in bands I didn’t find on Spotify, such as the duo
Fin Alfred & Morten Alfred
with his father. Furthermore, he forms a duo with American Café Orchestra fiddler
and he has been playing in the Danish fiddle and guitar duo,
Haugaard & Høirup
from 1998 till 2008.
So after this impressive introduction, the big question is: what will the partnership with Mia Guldhammer bring? A traditional Danish accordion sound or something more in the direction of the intriguing folk jazz bands Morten Alfred is part of?
The first notes of Brudegaverne/Lybekkeren/Altergang make me say traditional, but without the accordion. The song is upbeat, and strong in its simplicity. A voice and a guitar, that is ALL you get here -OK, and a choir joining in at the chorus but that’s just a ‘minor’detail-. You don’t need much more anyway. Mia and Morten fill up the whole room perfectly, their voices are a match made in heaven, the rhythm guitar is exquisite, and that choir is pure genius.
The quality of Mia’s voice is well known, but Morten Alfred has a voice that easily equals hers. He proves so on Sorgen/Håbets Dans. Strangely enough, he rarely sings in any of the bands I listened to while doing my research, so some may be surprised to hear the quality of his voice. Just like Mia, Morten Alfred has an accomplished, warm, and soothing voice. A pleasure to listen to. The harmonies he and Mia sing together on Sorgen/Håbets Dans are like a warm blanket. Pure bliss. And the lilting at the end of the song feels like vanilla ice on a hot chocolate cake. So smooth.
I’m also glad that Morten Alfred’s rhythm guitar playing is one of the features of this album. The part of the rhythm guitar is quite often overlooked, overshadowed by the soloists, but it is such an important part of a band. Highlighted as it is on this album you can hear how Morten Alfred’s playing fills up the room, how his rhythm has groove, how it drives the music, and how he effortlessly creates a smooth musical blanket on which the voices and soloists can shine. That’s the magic of a good rhythm guitar player.
Hold on, did you say ‘lilting end’ a few lines ago? Yes, I did. But I’ll let Morten Alfred and Mia explain that themselves:
-‘ When we first met in Copenhagen in 2018 and started making music together, it seemed like we were missing an instrument to take the melody now and then. But as soon as we had that thought, we realized that we could just
‘lilt’ the melody, just as we’d each been doing so often when singing alone at home. We quickly learned that we didn’t need more than our voices, a guitar, and some catchy material to work with.’
And boy does it work! We have Polka Umulius to prove it! This, the third song on Tral, Tråd & Traditioner, has to be my favorite song of the album, maybe my favorite song of the last few months! I have had this as an earworm ever since I first listened to it two weeks ago. The song also answers whether Morten Alfred and Mia would go traditional or folk-jazz on this album. Both, actually! Polka Umulius is a traditional polka, but it is also jazzy, upbeat, cheeky…actually the most fun you can legally have on a dance floor. Ánd it is a lilt from start to finish. I love this. I truly love this! Put this song on and you instantly have the summer sweeping through your living room. A song like this should not be allowed without a “will cause addiction” warning on the package. That’s all I need to say about it!
But we have to carry on, there are more treasures to be found on Tral, Tråd & Traditioner. The following song: Hvordan Vil Du Forsørge Jer greats us with a cool jew harp /guitar intro. Although Mia and Morten Alfred said they only needed good songs, a guitar, and their own voices to fill up the CD, they díd invite their friends over for some additional musical coloration. The mouth harp solo in this song for instance is really cool, and there are more moments like that on the album. There is the violin following Mia’s lead vocals in Polka Umulius. There is the mouth harp solo on Hare Løb, with a vocoder no less. As if
temporarily stepped into the folk scene. In Åh Min Nikolaj/Russeren/Den 2. Russer you’ll hear an overtone flute flutter through the music, giving the song a cool pagan folk feel, not to mention the smoking violin solo in the second part of that song. But it is all tastefully mixed in the music. The overall feel of the CD stays that of two folk balladeers performing right there in your living room. And it is THAT sound that makes this album so special. That magical harmony between the voices and the guitar. Co-producer and studio technician
managed to record that magic perfectly, so huge kudos to her.
Morten, Mia and Tapani Varis performing Varis Hare Løb
Well, I think that sums up Tral, Tråd & Traditioner quite nicely. Mia and Morten Alfred have created a warm traditional singer-songwriter folk album with a lovely cheeky swing jazz touch to it. Really original in its approach and really laid-back at the same time.
One of my big wishes is to be allowed in a studio or rehearsal room once and witness an album being born. To see the whole process involved, especially the creative part. Well, that wish has come true. Tral, Tråd & Traditioner feels like we have been invited to the studio with Mia and Morten Alfred. You will hear all the fun ideas they had; all those “we can’t do that!” moments, that normally never seem to survive the mixing process, have been kept in. This Making Tral, Tråd & Traditioner a boost of energy, a splash of good cheer, and an awfully entertaining CD.
Findlay Napier & Gillian Frame with Mike Vass – The Ledger (2020)
A couple of years ago I had the great pleasure of reviewing Luminosity, the brilliant album of the Scottish folk band
Back of the Moon.
It was at that point that I fell in love with the voice of lead singer Findlay Napier. Back of the Moon went their separate ways two years after the release of Luminosity, but it didn’t stop the former bandmembers from making music.
for instance released a couple of solo albums: VIP: Very Interesting People in 2015, the EP Very Interesting Extras (2016>, Glasgow (2017), and quite recently It IS What It Is. Especially the 2017 album Glasgow is still a firm favourite within my record collection.
Findlay isn’t the only former Back of the Moon member that I’ve been following. Although not involved in this particular project, some of you may have read my
of the folk concept albums Findlay’s brother
has released over the years. And to keep it all in the family, Findlay’s wife,
released a lovely album of her own called Pendulum (2016) that I also had the pleasure of
Given how much I love all the albums by this musical family – and their friends-, you can imagine how much I was looking forward to hearing The Ledger. Little did I know it would become a journey into traditional Scottish folk music. A musical journey I enjoyed a lot!
So what’s the story behind The Ledger? In this case, it is easiest to let Findlay Napier explain it himself:
-‘Every week in the late 50s and early 60s The Scotsman published a traditional Scottish folk song: lyrics and melody alongside an explanatory article. My Grandfather cut them out and pasted them into an old ledger. In early 2018 Gillian, Mike, and I whittled over sixty neatly cut and pasted songs from the ledger down to the songs you hear on this recording. At first, we searched for a theme but in the end, we chose the ten we liked singing the most.
The Ledger is best enjoyed beside a roaring fire with a dram…, tea and coffee also work…, especially with a dram in them.’ [taken from Bandcamp]
So there’s The Ledger for you. A lovely trip down memory lane recorded by Gillian Frame ( fiddle, lead- and backing vocals), Findlay Napier (guitar, high strung guitar, lead, and backing vocals),
(tenor guitar, fiddle, and music box) together with
Bonnie George Campbell is the song that opens this album and indeed it feels like a warm fire on a winter’s evening. Now I already told you, I just love Findlay Napier’s singing. His voice feels so emotional, it has such a beautiful timbre, his technique seems so effortless, that his vocal chords always seem to make a direct connection with my heart. He manages to add meaning to every word he sings, making him the ultimate singer/songwriter in my opinion. Combine that voice with some delicate guitar -, and bass playing, add the beautiful second voice from Gillian Frame, and you get a song that feels timeless. Call me weird but Bonnie George Campbell actually feels like home.
That comforting feeling of coming home is something that stays with me throughout this whole album. Findlay, Gillian, and Mike have managed to capture the feeling I would have had visiting my grandparents as a young kid, playing with the old toys, having that lovely tomato soup only grandma could make. All the songs on The Ledger ooze tradition, but without sounding old-fashioned. Bonnie George Campbell may sound purely traditional, with the next song, the more upbeat Burnie Bushel I can already hear the first cool tweaks I recognize from Back of the Moon’s Luminosity. There is that cool second guitar weaving through the song from the start for instance. Or the catchy fiddle solo Gillian plays halfway through Burnie Bushel. And I haven’t even mentioned that cool high-pitched sound coming in at the end yet, making me think for a second it was a hurdy-gurdy. I love those modern tweaks the ‘band’ has woven into the music. Contrasting, yet also complimenting the warm traditional singing style of Gillian and Findlay.
It is the constant contrast between these modern, contemporary tweaks and the traditional singer/songwriter duet style that is the strength of this album. It is also the reason why I started looking up the songs played. It made me curious how other artists jhad done it. It also made me curious about the history of all these songs. The first time I listened to Baloo Baleery for instance I made a note about the cool music box intro it had. It makes the song feel warmer, more tender I wrote, not knowing it is actually a Scottish lullaby. That clearly explains the music box AND the warm feeling of this song. The ‘band is extremely good at giving the lyrics exactly the right musical feel. The next song Van Diemen’s Land proves that straight away.
Van Diemen’s Land is an old transportation ballad. It tells the story of a poor fellow caught for poaching who was transported to Van Diemen’s land (New Zealand) only for that reason. True to the text the music has a slightly dark, eerie feel over it. Not too much though, only subtle. You hear it in the slight echo used on Gillian’s voice, the equally subtle distorted effect used on Findlay’s backing vocals, the weird, cool-sounding, high-pitched plucked strings (is that the high strung guitar Findlay Napier is credited with playing?), the build-up of it all. Every aspect adds to the sadness captured so perfectly in the lyrics written some 200 years ago.
Barbara Allen is a nice comfy folk song, luring you into the Highlands. It gave me the feeling I was floating adrift over the deep dark lochs and through the hidden glens of bonnie aul’ Scotland. As I said, this album feels so much like a homecoming. And home is a stone cottage hidden in the green shoulders of the Cairngorms. At least while listening to this beautiful seventeenth-century ballad it is.
Come to think of it, one more thing I like about this album is the lack of obvious evergreens. Yes, all ten songs are traditionals, but I’ve personally only heard Jamie Raeburn and Walking All Alane before. Granted, when it comes to Celtic folk music I’m still on a journey of discovery, but still…
Walking All Alane would be the exception that makes the ‘lack-of-evergreen’ rule. The minute you hear the first notes you will recognize it as the tune of Twa Corbies; The three Ravens, but in this case with lyrics narrating about yet another love affair meeting a tragic end.
After declaring my love for Findlay’s voice earlier on, I now have to do the same for Gillian’s too. She tells this tragic story so beautifully. Again the arrangements are amazing as well. The effect on Findlay’s voice creating a certain distance in space and time is so cool. Not to mention the melodramatic string ending finishing the song brilliantly. Candy to the ear, and not only for fans of folk music.
I want to pick out one last song that is recorded on The Ledger: Twa recruitin’ Sergeants. Again a song that goes all the way back to the seventeen hundreds. In those days boys and young men would be ‘tricked’ into voluntary service with the British armies, helped by the prospect of money, the promise of a good life..and maybe a drop or two of the strong stuff.
Now this song was born as a merry march, perfect to impress the unfortunate young lads, and normally it is still played as a jolly sing-a-long. Not on The Ledger. Gillian, Findlay, and Mike deliberately took the tempo out of it and turned it into a melancholic ballad with some truly beautiful fiddling in it.
To me, it feels like they are playing it from the perspective of the same unfortunate youngster, but now at the night before he has to go into battle, hearing the promises of the recruiters ringing in his ears one more time, full of remorse. Or maybe it is from the perspective of a parent? Sitting on the side of a fresh grave, reading the last letter of their beloved son, the words he wrote dancing over and over before their tear-filled eyes. In any case it is beautiful.
‘And it’s over the mountain and over the Main,
Through Gibralter, to France and Spain.
Pit a feather tae your bunnet, and a kilt aboon your knee,
Sae list my bonnie laddie and come awa wi me.
Cover art: Elly Lucas
Pictures: Elly Lucas