The Best of Altan/Altan Live
(Green Linnet, 1997)
I've always been mildly amused by "Best Of" releases. There's a reason for this -- usually when encountered, they're in the popular music section of a record store (sorry, I still call them record stores -- can't help myself) and invariably feature artists that a) were incapable of generating enough Top 40 singles to warrant a "Greatest Hits" release, or b) they did make it big, but only after leaving the label that is currently hawking this "Best Of" compilation.
Of course, that doesn't apply to Altan. Since the group's formation in the early 1980s, their brand of Irish music -- a clean, unpretentious sound with a very, well ... traditional air to it -- has been undeniably popular. Indeed, I can't think of another band that sounds like it's having as much fun on recordings as Altan does. And Riverdance aside, Celtic-influenced music has never had much of a place on popular radio, nevermind the Top 40. So for Altan, and by extension all popular, long-lived traditional bands, a "Best Of" album is quite acceptable. The question becomes how to pull it off without putting out a product that comes off as a cheap attempt to cash in.
Not a problem here. Not only does Altan come through with 16 excellent selections here, but the band also includes as a bonus the disc Altan Live, which adds another eight tunes to the mix. You've got to appreciate a band that puts out what essentially amounts to a double album without charging any more than they would for a single.
But what of the music? Well, it's hard to go wrong when the playlist starts off with the medley of "Con Cassidy's/Neil Gow's Highland/Moll & Tiarna/McSweeny's," a mix of tunes that fully justifies my earlier assertion of the band sounding like it's having fun. From there the band moves straight to the sweet melody of the Irish classic "Moll Dubh a' Ghlenna," a song Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh's silky vocals are perfectly suited for -- she even makes the Gaelic lyrics almost understandable.
Another fun selection is the set of "Jimmy Lyon's/The Teelin/The Red Crow/The Broken Bridge," a bouncy, exuberant mix of traditional tunes -- with the exception of the Mhaonaigh-penned "Red Crow" -- that ought not have too tough a time drawing a smile from listeners. "The Sunset" is a bit of a change, a winsome, yet urgent melody that manages to be both cheerful and sad at once. Good stuff. Sure, there are a couple pieces here that don't quite stack up to the rest of the material -- I found "The Flower of Magherally" marginally boring, and their arrangement of "King of the Pipers" could've come from the soundtrack of nearly any cut-rate fantasy movie, not to mention the fact that the arrangement really underplayed the role of what pipes they did have -- sort of like an Eric Clapton song breaking into a keyboard solo.
On Altan Live, the one duplication from Best Of, "Con Cassidy's/Neil Gow's Highland/Moll & Tiarna/McSweeny's," pales considerably when compared to the sharper production values of the studio recording. Mhaonaigh's a cappella vocals on "Thug Me Ruide" are rich and powerful, and she continues that thread by showing the range of her voice on "Ta Mo Chleamhnas a Dheanamh," a slow air that starts off unaccompanied and slowly adds instrumentation to nice effect. Altan picks up the pace with "The Curlew/McDermott's/Three Scones of Boxty/Unnamed Reel," but even that seems a mite subdued after listening to the full-blown rollicks on Best Of.
Overall, Live's selections are more somber, a distinctly different cut from the music on the companion disc, which offers a nice counterpoint. Best Of has superior material than Live, but that's only natural considering the nature of the two discs. For Altan completists, Live is a must. For the casual listener, it serves as a nice surprise.
Jayme Lynn Blaschke
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