The Chieftains,
The Bells of Dublin
(RCA Victor, 1991)

The Chieftains' Christmas-themed album, The Bells of Dublin, has something for everyone. This is both its strength and its weakness.

I should explain my particular biases in approaching this album. I love Christmas, both as a religious holiday and a secular festival; and I love Christmas music, particularly traditional Christmas music. These viewpoints undoubtedly affect which tracks I like and dislike on this album.

It opens with the ringing of the bells of Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. This merges nicely into a tight and polished performance of "Christmas Eve," getting the album off to a rousing start.

Next the Chieftains are joined by the Renaissance Singers, the first of many guest artists, for the waits' carol "Past Three O'Clock." ("Waits" were wandering bands of singers and musicians who used to walk the English city streets at Christmastime, performing carols for small sums of money.) The jaunty arrangement blends choral harmony into the Chieftains' usual style, and the whole thing is handled with a very light touch.

"The St. Stephen's Day Murders," with guest Elvis Costello, is an amusing song about the family ties that bind and gag. Surely most people who have gone through large family gatherings at holiday time have fantasized about murdering some of the guests, and this song (written by Costello and the Chieftains' Paddy Moloney) offers a little vicarious fun in that vein. The Chieftains perform with gusto, sometimes providing sound effects, as when they imitate the ghost of the Christmas turkey. Still, the track is awkwardly placed; it's between two "straight" and fairly reverent celebrations of the holiday, and as the third track on the album, it seems a bit early to be singing about the day when you can't stand any more of the holidays.

However, the mood is quickly restored in the next track. Kate and Anna McGarrigle add vocals and accordion on a medley of two French carols, "Il est Ne" and "Ca Berger." The arrangement here is masterful: varied, never overbearing, perfectly complimenting the charm and simplicity of the carols.

Next is a very old Irish carol, "Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil." It opens with a lone flute playing the haunting melody as Burgess Meredith reads an English translation of the lyrics. This is followed by Kevin Conneff singing the song in Irish. This track has a lovely, sparse, reverent sound, calling to mind images of stars in a frosty sky. It's one of my favorites.

Next, Marianne Faithfull performs "I Saw Three Ships A-Sailing." She sings with an engaging, childlike straightforwardness, while the accompaniment romps playfully along underneath. Charming.

"A Breton Carol," sung in Breton by Nolwen Monjarret, was originally recorded for the Chieftains' album Celtic Wedding. However, it's a welcome addition to this album too, where it can be heard in the context of other seasonal music. Monjarret's rich mezzo voice and the full instrumentation lend dignity to this medieval-sounding carol.

Next the mood turns light again with a medley of three carols: "O the Holly She Bears a Berry," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "The Boar's Head." On these songs the guest artists are the Voice Squad, a trio consisting of Phil Callery, Fran McPhail and Gerry Cullen. Their close harmonies are delightful, and their style blends marvelously with the Chieftains'. All these songs are excellent; "The Boar's Head" in particular, it's my favorite recording of that carol. It usually tends to sound rather stodgy, but in this arrangement it swings along in festive style.

The parade of guest stars continues as Nanci Griffith belts out a stylish performance of "The Wexford Carol." Oddly, she starts with the second verse, but never mind -- the heartfelt singing makes up for it! The first time I heard this album was my first exposure to this carol, which I see is becoming more and more popular. It's still one of my favorite recordings.

The next track features Jackson Browne performing an original song, "The Rebel Jesus." Frankly, I dislike this song, a cynical complaint about the hypocrisy of the supposedly pious; I find that it destroys any mood of peace and goodwill that I might be in. However, I'm sure many people will not share my reaction, and it is well-done. The arrangement is interesting, mixing traditional instrumentation with a contemporary beat and style. This song runs seamlessly into the "Skyline Jig," a composition by Paddy Moloney.

I'm not familiar with Ricki Lee Jones' other work, so I don't know whether she recorded "O Holy Night" with a severe head cold or whether this is her usual sound. In any case, I find her thick, congested voice very difficult to listen to. About the only thing that I enjoy in this track is an interlude for uillean pipes, but that's not enough to save it for me. I always skip this one, too.

And the next set is worth hurrying to: a medley which describes the arrival, performance and departure of a really top-notch group of "wren boys." This set features several more guest artists. First, Brendan Begley joins in on accordion for "The Arrival of the Wren Boys." Next, the group really cuts loose on "The Dingle Set," with much whooping, clapping and stepdancing. Kevin Conneff then scats through an energetic rendition of "The Wren in the Furze," with the Voice Squad supplying drone vocals. Kathryn Tickell plays two or three pieces on the northumbrian pipes. Their clean, sharp, woody sound is a treat to hear. Finally, the Voice Squad returns with a performance of "This Is the Season to Be Merry" (better known as "Deck the Halls") accompanied by realistic sounds of partying. (For a bit of fun, listen closely to the conversation sometime and try picking out bits of dialogue. The group is clearly getting into their roles with gusto.)

The group next moves from the cottage to the church for a set of three carols featuring the Renaissance Singers and the organ of St. Anne's Cathedral in Belfast. "Once in Royal David's City" is quite classical and "church-y" sounding, with a lot of choir and organ and not much Chieftains. As a fan of classical choral music, I like this style; but it may not be everyone's cup of tea. "Ding-Dong Merrily on High" is handled with a lighter arrangement recalling the treatment of "Past Three O'Clock." "O Come All Ye Faithful" alternates the two styles, achieving synthesis in the last verse. The organ then plays a variation, slowly fading into the sound of the bells of Christchurch Cathedral ringing once more for Christmas.

The Bells of Dublin is like a big party where you don't like all the guests equally well. You can stick to the ones you like and avoid the ones you don't. I suspect many people will want to adopt my solution: make a tape containing just the tracks you enjoy, and play it over and over! Fortunately, with over an hour of music, most people should find enough tracks they like to make up a respectable sampling.

[ by Juliet Youngren ]

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