Dan Milner,
Irish Pirate Ballads & Other Songs of the Sea
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2009)

Dan Milner is known as a folksinger's folksinger.

On his latest CD, a handsomely produced sequel to 1997's Irish Ballads & Songs of the Sea, he spins yarns of pirates, smugglers and homesick sailors with a jaunty voice that falls somewhere between those of Gordon Lightfoot and Willie Nelson. The supporting cast features Irish traditional luminaries such as singer Susan McKeown, flutist Joanie Madden of Cherish the Ladies, banjo virtuoso and folklorist Mick Moloney, champion fiddler Brian Conway and Clancy family member Robbie O'Connell.

Milner's emphatic delivery evokes an abiding love of that harsh mistress, the sea; even a confirmed landlubber may find it hard not to hum along with "The Lowlands Low" on the subway. The disc includes a cappella ballads, bar songs, comic ditties and immigrant laments, with a substantial historical booklet providing useful context. But it's in tracks that incorporate a contemporary Irish-trad style that Milner best evokes the lure of the waves.

John Doyle's sharp guitar adds energy to "Ten Thousand Miles Away" and the bright singalong "The Lowlands Low," while Madden's whistles drive "The Ballad of O'Bruadair" (pronounced "brother"), the saga of a 17th-century smuggler who comes to a bad end.

When Milner, encircled by Madden's soaring flute, sings, "I'll go to sea no more" during the haunting closer, Gina Dunlap's setting of the traditional ballad "The River Lea," you can only hope that he's lying.

review by
Gwen Orel

19 December 2009

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