Gleann Nimhe (The Poison Glen)
(Compass, 2012)

Unlike the better-known Chieftains in the latter stage of a long career, Altan delivers straight-ahead neo-traditional Irish music without hauling in guests from other, more commercial musical genres. The staggering excellence of the Chieftains is a matter no sane listener would deny, nor would any dispute the vast contribution to their nation's rich folk heritage. Still, one longs for the ever rarer Chieftains album featuring just the boys sans the adornment of country, rock, pop and (most recently) Americana performers.

Chances are, if you're reading these words, you know perfectly well what Altan is and what it so consistently delivers. When there are no Chieftains, Altan, a generation younger, will still be there, no longer Ireland's second-leading folk band.

I have heard nearly all of Altan's recordings, and the quality is uniformly such that complaints fall pettily off the tongue. Usually they come to something like, why this song instead of that one? Why, for example, Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country" (on Another Sky) and not its inspiration, "The Elfin Knight" (a.k.a. "Scarborough Fair")? But then, Altan confounds the would-be malcontent by offering up an absorbing and surprising arrangement of "Girl" that owes little to Dylan and more to its traditional model, the result being the sort of thing Altan does consistently with close to unerring taste and creativity.

In summary: Altan albums are pretty much reviewer-proof. Thus, those of us tasked to judge can only describe.

Gleann Nimhe (The Poison Glen) is an Altan stripped down to its basics, which is to say the six-member core band with the occasional non-celebrity musical guest working magic on sturdy traditional or tradition-inspired songs (as often as not sung in Gaelic) and tunes. Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh's singing is gorgeous enough to generate the sensation of imminent fainting in the listener -- nothing new there. And then there are those harmonies, surely not exactly traditional but perfectly sensible (and more) in context.

The material is either fresh or freshly imagined. The surprises are -- of course -- all pleasant ones, among the most memorable of them the Gaelic "Seolta Geala," which some of you will recognize as translated from the well-known sea shantey "Away, Rio." I couldn't get it out of my head for days, but then I suppose I wasn't trying too hard. For some reason I wouldn't have anticipated an Altan treatment of "The Lily of the West," but it's here, and it's a hypnotic, distinctive variant where Louisville becomes "Lover's Well" in the wonderful way that oral transmission creates its own psychic geography. The liner notes say this "Lily" came from a Gaelic singer -- presumably one unversed in the municipalities of Kentucky -- living on Aranmore Island.

Well, you get the idea. It's an Altan album and a particularly affecting, accomplished one, and what more is there to say or desire?

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 July 2012

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