Music: New Irish Releases
By Tom Dunphy, Contributor
August / September 2000
Sinead O’Connor, Faith and Courage
In music, as in affairs of the heart, the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.
And indifference is largely how the music-buying public viewed Sinead O’Connor in the latter part of the nineties. 1997’s Gospel Oak and 1994’s Universal Mother were largely forgettable. Am I Not Your Girl was O’Connor’s last strong effort. That was recorded nearly a decade ago.
Her new release, Faith and Courage, has rekindled the love affair. It is a mesmerizing, if uneven, effort. O’Connor’s sexuality is worn on her sleeve and is all over this album.
In “No Man’s Woman,” she rails against “man-trolling” and decrees that “a man can fake you / Take your soul and make you / Miserable and in so much pain.” The song’s intro strongly echoes Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything,” and evolves into a catchy trip-hop groove, as O’Connor gleefully skewers the male gender.
Yet on the autobiographical “Daddy I’m Fine,” O’Connor boasts, “I stand up tall with my pride upright / And feel real hot when my makeup’s nice / Like I wanna f— every man in sight” as a wall of distorted guitars growls behind her. She’s lived life on her own terms – “I’ve had myself some big fat fun” – and cares not a whit what the world thinks.
There are some sonic treats in Faith and Courage: the low-whistle-meets-low-rider funk of “Til I Whisper U Something,” the chilly electronica of “The Healing Room,” the ethereal vocals of “Kyrie Eleison.”
Songs are painted with sheets of sound, and then peeled back at all the right moments. But it wouldn’t be a Sinead O’Connor album if there wasn’t a moment or two that makes you cringe. Like this line from “What Doesn’t Belong to Me”: “I’m Irish, I’m English, I’m Muslim / I’m Jewish / I’m a girl / I’m a boy / And the goddess meant for me only joy.” Argh!
This lyrical overkill aside, Faith and Courage counts as a real comeback for Sinead O’Connor. You may love it, or hate it, but you’ll not be indifferent.
Dolores Keane, There Was a Maid
Dolores Keane has sung with Clannad, DeDanaan, and the Chieftains. She has interpreted the songs of stellar songwriters like Paul Brady, Van Morrison, and Richard Thompson. She’s built a low-key solo career that’s been marked by integrity – some even call her the “Voice of Ireland.” That’s why it’s at once both interesting and refreshing to listen to There Was a Maid, a recent Claddagh Records reissue of her 1978 solo debut. The album has the overall feel of an intimate living room session. The instrumentation is sparse; the Reel Union duo of Peadear Mercier and Mairtin Byrnes provides lively and tasteful accompaniment. Keane’s voice is younger, fresher, and less trained but it’s easy to hear the talent that would later blossom.
The sean nós style ballads “There Was a Maid in Her Father’s Garden” and “The Generous Lover,” are plaintive and touching. Mercier and Byrnes provide a steady backdrop on “Johnny and Molly” and “The Bantry Girl’s Lament.” The two also take a turn of their own with the instrumentals “The Shaskeen Reel” and “The Laurel Bush.”
But it’s Keane who’s the focus here. Her voice is a pure delight. There Was a Maid is a must-listen for traditional fans, and a fine entry into Irish music for all others.
Young Dubliners, Red
Higher Octave Records
Given a name like the Young Dubliners, you’d certainly expect to hear whiskey-tinged rebel songs. But this L.A.-based septet, fronted by Dub Keith Roberts, owes as much to Pearl Jam as it does to Planxty.
That’s not to say Roberts and company have turned their backs on their Irish roots – fiddles, whistles, and mandolins punctuate the entire affair. But the album rocks, too. There’s “Stop Me,” with its insistent beat and Hammond organ swells. The laidback groove of “Don’t You Worry” frames Roberts’ warm voice with the band building musical tension beneath. And “Red,” a collaboration with longtime Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin, is a feather in the band’s cap.
A cover of the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues” is unnecessary, but Red is still an intriguing effort. The band should get major airplay with several of these songs.
Mary Black, Speaking with the Angel
Curb Records / Dara
From her solo debut Without the Fanfare in 1987 and throughout the nineties, Mary Black has recorded thoughtful, quietly compelling music for adults.
Speaking with the Angel, her latest, is no exception. Her voice is always clear, sharp, and soaring and Black has a canny knack for selecting quality songs. The Dougie McLean-penned “Turning Away” is an edgy ballad of alienation, punctuated by a Duane Eddy-ish twang guitar riff from Donal Lunny. Steve Cooney’s “Message of Love” evokes the brassy sixties pop of Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield, and fuses it with tin whistles and uilleann pipes.
Her take on “Fall at Your Feet” – written by Neil Finn, one half of Crowded House – is at once yearning and pessimistic, the mood underpinned by mournful cellos.
But the high point of this album may well be Black’s treatment of Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” She strips the song down to its barest bones – nylon-string guitar and harmonica – and reveals its raw essence. Rarely can an artist take a song that’s been burned into the collective unconscious and make it her own. Black does just that.
It’s oddly prescient that the title of Mary Black’s solo debut was Without the Fanfare. Though well respected in Ireland and pockets of the U.S. and UK, Black’s work has gone under-noticed. Here’s hoping Speaking with the Angel changes that. ♦