The Alt, |
(Under the Arch, 2014)
Irish singer Nuala Kennedy has many talents. One of them is in surrounding herself with other gifted musicians -- I have, over the years since I first met her in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, lost track of the number of bands she has fronted or otherwise partnered with. That is again the case with her latest trio, The Alt, which joins Kennedy's flute with John Doyle's guitar and Eamon O'Leary's guitar and bouzouki. All of them sing. And if you don't recognize all three names, your knowledge of Irish music is sorely lacking.
This self-titled CD was born in Coolaney, a village near Knocknarea in County Sligo, where the glen called the Alt is located. It was recorded over three days in a mountain cabin in North Carolina.
The results are magical, as each performer takes turns shining vocally and instrumentally, blending layers for a strong, folky sound. The album draws from varied Irish, Scottish, English and American traditions -- primarily Irish -- and these three musicians make them their own. (The band notes in its press materials that, although each member is a prolific songwriter, they wanted to focus on traditional sources for their first album. Emphasis on "first," meaning more are forthcoming.) The selection is, for the most part, laid back and low key, a relaxing assortment that isn't intrusive when you want a pleasant soundtrack for other tasks, but focus on the words and the sounds and each song stands up to scrutiny. In fact, on several occasions I wanted to lean back, close my eyes and soak in the stories being told -- which is not the best idea when you're listening while driving down Route 30.
The album's 11 tracks are mostly vocal-oriented, although there's some instrumental work mixed in. If I had to choose a favorite, I'd probably go with "Cha Tig Mor Mo Bhean Dhachaigh" (just my luck, the hardest title to type). It's a lovely, mournful song in Scots Gaelic, nimbly voiced by Kennedy. But there's lots here to like, with Doyle, Kennedy and O'Leary all doing themselves proud.
The album closes with "The Letter Song," a haunting a cappella song featuring all three vocalists, based on a letter written by a preacher in Kentucky to his wife in New England, warning her not to join him because of the rough conditions there. It's sad, gorgeous and expertly arranged.
Note: The Alt is not yet available on Amazon, and the website listed on the CD -- thealtmusic.com -- is not working at the time of this writing. But it's not hard to track down any of these three talented musicians online, so a copy should not be too hard to find. In fact, I insist.
by Tom Knapp
Here is a dazzling recording by three of the finest traditional Irish musicians of their generation: John Doyle (guitar, bouzouki, mandola), Nuala Kennedy (flute, whistles) and Eamon O'Leary (guitar, bouzouki); each moreover a compelling vocalist. Just the three of them, and nobody else. And from the evidence of The Alt, The Alt needs no more, though an explanation of where the name comes from seems in order.
It turns out (it says here) that the Alt is "a storied glen on the side of Knocknarea" in County Sligo. Near this glen lies the village of Coolaney, where Doyle, Kennedy and O'Leary first gathered to rehearse this album, which eventually was recorded in a mountain cabin in North Carolina. Even so, only one cut, "The Letter Song," is of American origin. From the first line of the opener, however, I could have sworn that "Lovely Nancy" would be just an alternate title to the well-known Appalachian outlaw's lament "When First Unto This Country." Nope, though it may be a distant cousin.
Among this CD's abundant pleasures is its refusal to take the usual routes. The 11 songs and tunes tend to eschew the chestnuts. Instead, the trio seeks out obscurities and unusual variants. Even a song with so well-traveled a title as "One Morning in May" proves to be something other than the expected. Still, it should be noted that "Willy Angler" is "The Banks of the Bann" ("Willy Archer" in the classic Silly Wizard recording), a rare seduction ballad in which the seducer shows he is not, in the end, a despicable heel. And then there's that melody, gorgeous enough to make you cry. "Who Put the Blood" is a variant of the gruesome "Edward" (Child #13). Prof. Child called it "one of the noblest and most sterling examples of the popular ballad," and The Alt captures its disturbing power brilliantly.
Many years ago, when I first started listening to traditional music in any sort of concerted fashion, I harbored the naive belief that the well of folk songs would be too deep ever to run dry. That may be true in some large sense, since people in all times and places are making up things to sing and play, but in our era we are entirely dependent upon that relatively subset of homegrown music that has been recovered. That is a demonstrably finite resource, I've learned. It bears recalling that songs that remained local to isolated or remote cultures, once lost, are all but unrecoverable. The bulk of the traditional material we're familiar with comes from recordings (field and early commercial) and printed collections assembled by academic and lay collectors. The consequence for Rambles.NET readers is that if you listen to enough folk albums or attend enough concerts, eventually you will cease hearing songs, even if in variants, that you have not heard before.
To be fair, many working musicians are too busy struggling to make a living to pursue neglected material out of dusty archives or from living native informants. Not so, evidently, The Alt, whose work ethic must be a formidable one indeed. Even the most experienced and jaded listener, and I am one, will be thrilled to hear plenty of old songs that will be new to most ears. I thought I'd heard all the Napoleonic War broadsides, but "The Eighteenth of June" -- 1815, that is, the day the Battle of Waterloo was waged -- amounts to a very pleasant surprise. Likewise, the above-mentioned "Letter Song," not to mention "Finn Waterside," "Going for a Soldier, Jenny" and just about everything else. The material is set in uncluttered but scintillating arrangements.
Because I try to refrain from fatuous pronouncements, I can't swear this is the best Irish album of the year. How would I know? I haven't, after all, listened to more than a tiny sampling of them. But I can tell you that I haven't heard a better one this year.
by Jerome Clark