Rachel Newton – The Shadow Side

To say this album is understated, would be no overstatement. Shot through with an arresting delicacy that simply wills you to listen, it possesses a naked simplicity that radiates beauty. Whether it be singing, or playing the harp or fiddle, Rachel performs with an effortless allure that speaks to your innermost senses. Meticulously recorded by Mattie Foulds, The Shadow Side captures an intimacy that is nurtured by the sparing arrangements. With the crisp lucidity of Rachel’s playing and singing always to the fore, the restrained accompaniment of occasional guitar and percussion serves to accentuate a tenderness that boasts warmth and sincerity.

“Green Willow” will be one of the most truly beautiful songs you will hear all year, taming the assured vocals of Kris Drever to deliver a duet of unrelenting intensity and charm; it’s a performance that would surely melt even the hardest of hearts. Rachel pulls off a similar feat on Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” imbuing it with a fragility that is almost harrowing.

The apprehensive eeriness of the sparse opening melody to “The Discoboat,” plucked slowly but determinedly on the harp, makes for an unsettling minute with sinister undertones, before giving way to a more animated melody where the sense of foreboding gives way to a sense of adventure. The title track lives up to its shadowy title; a gorgeous lament filled with longing, played with the utmost restraint and sensitivity.

There are buoyant offerings too, springing forth from Rachel’s harp with boundless energy and abandon, yet retaining the potency of the more reflective moments. The trio of tunes “The Last Minute / The Groupie / Height Of Rudeness” gathers momentum as it progresses towards its slightly manic close, showcasing the harp’s hypnotic combination of depth and agility. “Soundboards And Sockets” is another busy melody with its heady concoction of frantic fervour.

The album closes with the Gaelic song “Am Bruadar Ud a Chunnaic Mi,” sung over a mournful harmonium and yielding the most heartfelt and heartbreaking desolation; it’s endlessly captivating.

Rachel Newton can most often be found performing as part of The Shee or the Emily Portman Trio, but with The Shadow Side she quietly and assuredly places her solo accomplishments in full view.

Mike Wilson

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Artist Web link: http://www.rachelnewtonmusic.com/

Cathy Jordan – All the Way Home

Dervish front-woman, Cathy Jordan finally presents her eagerly anticipated debut solo album. A more sparse offering than the vibrant sounds produced by Dervish, All The Way Home presents an opportunity to focus on Jordan’s vocal prowess, and it’s an opportunity that rewards the listener handsomely. A largely subdued affair, with some inspired and original interpretations of familiar traditional material, it frequently allows Jordan the opportunity to demonstrate a subtle yet utterly disarming potency.

Minimal accompaniment alongside a sparse but determined vocal restores the humanity and poignancy to stories that have long been lost within the high jinx of beer-swilling, bawdy sing-alongs. Suddenly, “Bold Fenian Men” is less a triumphant celebration of rebellion, and more a moving personal recollection of individual characters, their families and the heart-wrenching realities of a lifetime’s struggle. “Eileen McMahon” is delivered as a beautifully sumptuous duet with Eddi Reader, and yields a similarly unique and solitary tale, making a devastatingly stirring impression.

With lyrics built from the excerpts of a Patrick Devine poem, “In Curraghroe” is worth singling out, offering an insight in to the loneliness of rural life alongside the rapturous joys of the sights, sounds and smells of the surrounding landscape.

There are moments of exuberance here too, nestled amongst the earnest memories. Punctuating the more candid, personal tales are a few instrumental tracks featuring contemporary compositions, written firmly within the Irish traditional style, that speak of life’s pleasures with a spirit and energy that words could not match. “Ould Ballymoe” takes a fair shot at this however, offering a carefree and colourful vignette of village life.

Jordan’s voice is instantly recognisable, with a diction and tone that maintains her Irish accent prominently, contributing to her distinctive, unique sound. The very fact that Jordan’s voice alone has so much to offer means that the “less is more” maxim is certainly something that works well for her, and further exploration of the more stripped-back production that works so well here would doubtlessly produce a timeless, attractive and edifying body of work.

Mike Wilson

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Artist Web link: https://www.dervish.ie/

Kim Lowings, Drifting Point (EP)

Hailing from the West Midlands, Kim Lowings evokes the bohemian spirit reminiscent of the singer-songwriter movement that flourished so colourfully during the late 60s and early 70s. Lowings is however anything but a pastiche, resolutely stamping her own identity on her work. Singing with a voice that boasts a warm femininity, and avoiding the weary, self-indulgent cliches worn by many songwriters, it’s a hard heart who wouldn’t be smitten with Lowings’ engaging and often breezy disposition.

Lowings’ dulcimer features heavily throughout this EP, lending a distinct sound, and adding much to the carefree spirit that blossoms so radiantly. Opening track, “Did You Ever,” transports the listener to a sanguine dreamscape, contrasting the playful innocence of childhood with the more troubled aspects of adult life. Lowings demonstrates a restless character and possibly a good deal of ambition on “Sapphire,” where she seems to eschew the familiarity of her hometown in search of fresh life experiences that carry her to distant shores.

On occasion Lowings’ writing borrows subtly from the language of traditional ballads, instilling her contemporary freshness with an unmistakeable essence of the tradition, particularly noticeable in the poetic grace with which she weaves the natural world in to her lyrics. Closing track, “The Flounder,” portrays this aspect most prominently, sounding to all intents and purposes as if it might well be an age-old traditional ballad.

This five-track EP serves as a lovely introduction to Kim Lowings, and is packed with promise aplenty that will all but ensure she commands a prominent future amongst the folk scene.

Oh, and… I think I’ve just fallen in love with the dulcimer.

http://www.reverbnation.com/kimlowings

Mike Wilson

Kris Drever with Éamonn Coyne & Megan Henderson (EP, Reveal Records)

This EP serves as a brief reminder of the sheer power of storytelling that is harnessed by Kris Drever’s remarkable and characteristic voice. Bereft of any needless ornamentation, Drever sings with a stark purity that instils a knowing sense of sincerity and urgency in his delivery, effortlessly drawing the listener in to something that is more akin to a conversation than a performance.

There is possibly a limitless array of material from the folk genre that one would wish to hear Drever tackle, and we’re treated to several such standards here. “Parcel Of Rogues” receives a more rumbustious treatment than some of the more usual preachy readings, whilst retaining the tenor of its ardent lyrics, and a breathtaking race through “Shady Grove” gives off some truly exhilarating, frenetic vibes. A more relaxed performance is evident on Sandy Wright’s “Wild Hurricane,” one of those magical moments where the potency of singer and songwriter combine to achieve an exceptional synthesis.

There is an impressive range packed in to this abridged release. The assured driving force of Éamonn Coyne’s banjo sets things off to a rollicking pace on several occasions, accompanied by the sprightly flourish of Megan Henderson’s fiddle, and the commanding, rhythmic authority of Drever’s own guitar on a lively combination of traditional and contemporary tunes, positively brimming with sheer joy and energy. In contrast, Drever’s own delicate composition, “Lament for Glencoe,” offers a blissful, serenity-filled few minutes.

There’s nothing fancy here, and it may only last around fifteen minutes, but you might well struggle to find a more accomplished, more enjoyable fifteen minutes of music on this year’s release schedules. Mike Wilson

Artist’s website: http://krisdrever.com/

Gráinne Holland – Teanga na nGael

West Belfast’s Gráinne Holland bursts on to the scene with this impressive debut recording, boasting confident, avant-garde interpretations of largely traditional Gaelic songs, with a full-bodied voice that instils a rich vibrancy, and broad appeal.

Opening with the rhythmic cadence of “A Bhean Údaí Thall,” Gráinne’s perfectly poised vocal stamps a commanding authority on the melody, accompanied by sprightly guitar and uillean pipes, infused with contemporary nuances courtesy of a prominent rhythm section. The more measured “Slóite na bhFiann” follows, with a deliciously sultry, jazz-soaked makeover with piano, saxophone and cello combining to provide a sumptuous backdrop for Gráinne’s assured vocal.

“Uiseag Bheag Ruaidh” is a showcase for the striking range of Gráinne’s voice, portraying tender warmth, though boasting more in the way of determined strength than fragility, and a powerful resonance that sets your emotions on tenterhooks; here, one is also afforded the opportunity to enjoy Tony Byrne’s fluid and intricate guitar playing. Singing with the utmost composure over the haunting drones of the uillean pipes on “Báta an tSíl,” Gráinne soothes the listener with the utter tranquillity and effortlessness of her voice, creating a celestial ambience.

The unique, beautiful rhythms of the Gaelic language rise to the fore on two tracks: “Seanduine Dóite” and “Dónal na Gréine.” The former offers a rolling cadence, with a distinctively Irish lilt to the vocal, whilst the latter is sung at a lively tempo, ever gathering pace as it nears its boisterous dénouement.

The triumph of this album ultimately stems from Gráinne’s vocals, though the bold arrangements and accompanying musicians add much to distinguish from more traditional offerings, showing that traditional Gaelic song can occupy a genuinely contemporary position on the musical spectrum, whilst remaining firmly in touch with its much revered origins.

Mike Wilson

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Artist Web link: http://grainneholland.com/

Christy Moore – Folk Tale (Sony Music Ireland)

It’s quite possible that there couldn’t be a more fitting title for this album, and not just because it’s the title of one of the songs contained therein. Christy can legitimately lay claim to being the epitome of the living, breathing folk ‘process’; indeed, one of the most rewarding aspects of following his career is the way in which his material morphs and reinvents to suit the occasion, be it the musicians he’s playing with, the audience to which he is playing on any given night, or the more substantial reordering that arises from the growing wisdom and perception that is amassed as the years pass by. It’s this very aspect that distinguishes Folk Tale as something that little bit more special: it’s a snapshot of where Christy is right now, the continued story of the songs he’s carried along with him, alongside the new chapters that reinvigorate and fortify his voyage.

Two particular highlights find Christy furnishing songs of tragedy with a genuine compassion, whilst avoiding any hint of mawkish sentimentality. Kevin Littlewood’s “On Morecambe Bay” thoughtfully observes the fate of illegal immigrant cockle pickers, lost to the deadly tides. The narrative is remarkably evocative for placing the workers firmly amongst the local community, with the writer seemingly expressing a sense of collective guilt for being aware of their plight, but failing to intervene and warn of the treacherous dangers out on the sands. “Haiti” takes a more global view, with it’s clarion call to a nation to rise up and “smile again” in the wake of the harrowing earthquake that decimated the country. The contemplative manner with which Christy approaches these songs probably gives voice and emotion to many who witnessed these events from afar.

Several pieces from Christy’s 1996 album, Graffiti Tongue, receive a more circumspect reworking, seemingly holding at bay some of the anger that permeated the original recordings in favour of more considered readings that are no less disarming. In particular “God Woman” basks in a genuine feeling of warmth, whilst the title track benefits from a more reserved, melodic approach that somehow makes the romance of the story much more compelling.

Folk Tale also reminds us of Christy’s keen sense of humour. “My Little Honda 50” is a light-hearted ditty, on the face of it a quirky tribute to a an even quirkier form of transport, yet dig beneath the skin and it’s a fond recollection of simple times and simpler pleasures. “Weekend In Amsterdam” is a more raucous affair, with some lyrics that I daren’t even repeat within these pages!

Harking back to his days with Planxty, “Farmer Michael Hayes” is recast in a more sparse arrangement, delivered at a slightly more measured pace, proving more reflective than the hearty rebelliousness of the original Planxty recording, largely owing to the greater depth and maturity that age has bestowed on Christy’s voice.

Drawing together the disparate threads of artistry that inspire and nourish his life, Folk Tale draws from a rich palette taking in poetry, politics, humour and tragedy. It’s a collection that is no doubt richer for the accomplished production skills and sympathetic musicianship of the doggedly talented Declan Sinnott, but it’s most certainly Christy’s heart that beats strong throughout. Mike Wilson

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Artist’s website: http://www.christymoore.com/