Niamh Parsons,
Blackbirds and Thrushes
(Green Linnet, 1999)

Niamh (pronounced NEAVE) Parsons has one great set of pipes on her. I discovered this immediately after coming home from a particularly hard day at work and putting the CD in as a sort of half-hearted attempt to get more done at home.

It didn't happen. From Niamh's first track, "Blackbirds and Thrushes/The Blackbird Waltz," forward through the end, I was transported to a place where work is overrated and daydreams are more important than billable hours. Inspired, I turned up the CD player and promptly listened avidly to the rest of it from the comfort of a warm, relaxing bath. It was the perfect setting.

This is a CD that inspires dreams. Even the more up-tempo tracks are unobtrusive and are lent an otherworldly tinge by Niamh's angelic voice. Many of the songs are a capella, and although I'm usually more of a fan of complex harmonies and stronger rhythms, the soft, strong quality of her voice is enough to carry these songs to where they need to be.

According to the liner notes, most of this collection is either based on or has been modified from traditional Irish ballads. The instrumentally accompanied tracks are few and far between, but they feature ethereal notation that plays a back seat to the lyrics and that voice.

My chief complaint, actually, is about those tracks, and even this complaint is only half-hearted. The mixing in these songs has softened the musical accompaniment, probably in an attempt to give more credence and focus on Niamh's vocals. The problem is that they've softened the instruments so much that in some cases, it seems off-balance. Several times, I found myself trying to listen to the instrumentation -- not an easy task -- and it distracted me subtly from listening to the overall effect. It's like when someone speaks to you softly -- you have to listen harder to hear what it is that they're saying, and it ends up carrying more emphasis that way. If the producers had turned it up just a notch, putting it more in balance, the vocals would still be strong on their own merit, but wouldn't be as distracting by the lack of volume.

If I had to compare Niamh Parsons to another artist (which I don't, but bear with me for the sake of comparison), I'd have to say she's similar in vocal ability to an immature Loreena McKennitt. Her voice is amazing; her track choices excellent -- but Parsons lacks some of the experience and exposure to other influences and world styles that McKennitt employs. If she were to draw on some of these other influences, it would serve to mature Parsons' music to the next level.

I look forward to listening to this CD again, and watching Parsons' music evolve, if it does, over the course of her career. And if it doesn't? Where she stands now is still a pretty strong place to be. I'd recommend this CD as a great way to escape, preferably while curled up in a warm blanket on a rainy day, or as a soundtrack for dreaming while floating in a scented bath. It's perfect for either.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]

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