The McCabes,
Dark Before the Dawn
(self-produced, 2004)

More than a decade ago, Irish-born singer-songwriter Sean McCabe traveled to New York City with dreams of forming "a country/old-timey sounding band, singing songs with Irish themes." Today, as lead vocalist of the McCabes, he has done just that. Often old-timey, sometimes Irish and always instrumentally sound, their latest album Dark Before the Dawn is definitely worth a listen.

The Irish-American "Paddy's Day" gets the album off to a great start with quick, tight lyrics and a catchy riff (repeated throughout). McCabe's Irish-sounding vocals work particularly well on this one, lending the tune an air of spontaneous energy (which, incidentally, is lacking on some of the later tracks).

The fiddle arrangements on this album are excellent, with tracks like "Nice to Be Here" and "Melo" boasting particularly nice fills. In fact, old-time fiddling does a lot to fill out many of the tracks. That said, "old-timey sounding" is by no means the only style to which the McCabes limit themselves. "Lost and Lonely," for example, has an electric guitar solo and a bass intro reminiscent of 1980s Loverboy. And "Better Future in London" has a Caribbean feel (while still managing to retain some of that great old-time fiddlin').

Vocally, McCabe is best suited to traditional Irish and country styles. His voice, which works so well in numbers like "Paddy's Day," lacks life in slower numbers and doesn't always blend well with his vibrant backing vocalists. For this reason, and because the lyrics are often repetitive, some of the tracks drag a bit. As is the case with many Irish bands, the McCabes would no doubt be much more entertaining in a live pub setting with a pint of Guinness in hand!

The instrumental sets, which blend modern and traditional instrumentation and are dubbed with cute-but-cheesy titles like "Reely Funky" and "Reely Jammin'," are undisputably the best numbers on this album. "Reely Jammin'," for example, is a set of traditional reels turned experimental jam session. All three instrumental sets show off impressive musical arrangements that incorporate the build and release of tension with seamless movement from one reel to the next.

Dark Before the Dawn is notable for its instrumental proficiency alone. Because the McCabes are considerably more developed instrumentally than vocally, the vocals often can't do the instrumentation justice. I'd love to see them do a whole CD full of reels ... but then, of course, they might run out of song titles reely quickly!

- Rambles
written by Katie De Jong
published 3 September 2005

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