Liz Carroll & John Doyle,
Double Play
(Compass, 2009)

Ben Hall,
Ben Hall!
(Tompkins Square, 2011)

Those of us who aren't musicians, some argue, have no business reviewing persons who are. We non-musicians counter that would be true only if music were made solely for other musicians. And of course if that were true and the appreciation of music by non-players were discouraged, there'd be many fewer musicians who could make a living at what they do. The world's pleasure quotient would shrink accordingly.

Still, I concede that not being a musician -- not to mention lacking a formal education in musical theory and practice -- does make the reviewing of instrumental or mostly instrumental recordings a job one takes on reluctantly. I do know when an instrumental performance is a bad or a mediocre one. That's something that decades of obsessive listening will do for one. It won't, however, give one the vocabulary to relate what the musicians are doing and how they got there. For that information, you'll have to go elsewhere. For one music lover's appreciation, this:

The two CDs cited above have two things in common. They're trafficking in vernacular sounds (Irish folk in the case of Liz Carroll & John Doyle, mid-century country swing in Ben Hall's), and they're mostly instrumental. A third thing is that any listener, whatever the background and expectation, will recognize them as accomplished and satisfying. Anybody's CD collection will be enriched by their inclusion.

As those who know anything about Irish music are aware, fiddler Carroll, a Chicago native, and singer/guitarist Doyle, an Irish national, are two of the most respected figures of the current revival, and deservedly so. Double Play intermingles traditional tunes with Carroll's compositions, which are indistinguishable; she's so immersed in the tradition that it's her natural language. A particularly striking original, one that played in my head for days after I first heard it, is Carroll's sad, beautiful air "Lament for Tommy Makem," composed in honor of the then-lately dead Irish-music giant.

Doyle, whose most recent recording project was last year's Exile's Return (Compass, with Karan Casey), has a reedy vocal style that makes me think of an Irish Bert Jansch. Not long ago, I read a review that alleged Doyle isn't much of a singer, which seems to me prima facie evidence of tin-earedness, if not of clinical madness. I love Doyle's singing, here applied to several traditional and modern compositions, including -- my favorite -- the union anthem "A Pound a Week Rise" from the pen of one Ed Pickford. Doyle got it from Dick Gaughan, who I imagine some crazy person somewhere has also accused of not being able to sing.

On Ben Hall! Ben Hall comes off as a young Merle Travis, picking on electric and acoustic guitars jazz-inflected pre-1950 pop and country tunes. Drummer Sammy Merendino and bassist Skip Ward provide expert band support. The occasional vocal is delivered in the unhurried fashion of an easy-going jazz singer. Fittingly, the first two cuts are the Travis-composed standards "Cannonball Rag" and "Guitar Rag," and the eighth is the Travis/Cliffie Stone collaboration "Sweet Temptation." The 11th and last cut is the Louvin Brothers' "Every Time You Leave," presumably there as a tribute to the late Charlie Louvin, who is responsible for Hall's getting the contract to record this warm and likable album.

music review by
Jerome Clark

16 July 2011

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