Reviews of recent releases from Irish and Irish-American artists.
A band sure to come under their fair share of Pogue comparisons, Barleyjuice’s new album Skulduggery Street is a collection of energetic songs with a punk rock bite. The early tracks walk a dangerous line that could pigeonhole them into the same street-rock-meets-pub-seisiun that was seemingly perfected in the 90s. They play with a carefree excitement though, an attitude to set them apart from their contemporaries. As the album unfolds, Barleyjuice reveals the capability for much softer elements. They work in pleasant contrast to their rock drinking songs with sweet folky mandolin-driven tunes like “Whiskey Maid,” contrasted by the traditional fiddle-driven “The Postman Always Jigs Twice.” The album ends with the very sweet and gentle tin whistle of “Generations.” The vocal harmonies in this closing track come as a charming surprise following a very upbeat party album. There is versatility in Barleyjuice, to be sure, and they seem to have just barely scratched the surface of it yet.
Smith & Gannon
The Ewe with the Crooked Horn
In the world of traditional Irish music, The Ewe with the Crooked Horn brings together two gifted players in Irish American folk tradition. The record offers a traditional sound of the celebrated duo of fiddle and accordion, played with both precision and variation. Jesse Smith’s fiddle stands out with his unique style of ornamentation, which still pays tribute to many greats before. The Baltimore native was born to musician parents and grew up in the Irish music tradition. He moved to Ireland and began touring and teaching music in a variety of schools and camps.
Smith’s counterpart in this record is Colm Gannon. Gannon, a first-generation Irish American whose parents hailed from Connemara, is originally from Dorchester, MA. A competitive accordion player, Gannon won the All-Irelands for button accordion in 1994 and went on to tour with Riverdance and a variety of Irish bands. His accordion provides the solid foundation throughout the record.
The two complement each other seamlessly in this record, which feels familiar in the best sense. This is traditional music played by musicians I would not be surprised to see become household names.
James Vincent McMorrow
Early in the Morning
A true stumble-upon talent, Irish-born James Vincent McMorrow picked up the guitar at age 19, and claims he wrote his first song just four years before this album dropped in January 2011. The musician spent his early years as a “hardcore drummer,” relishing in a heavy metal influence before exploring the folk world that would ultimately lead him down the path to his debut record, Early in the Morning – a path that many will be surely grateful he found. This album cannot be praised enough. The arrangements are stunning, with understated vocals that melt into the record. “We Don’t Eat” stands out in particular as a track that begins as a soft and tearful song. McMorrow accomplishes something very special in the build-up of this track – it feels like a story arc slowly being carried into exciting action and gently brought down into resolution. McMorrow sticks to a very structured folk ballad for “Follow You Down to the Red Oak Tree,” evoking Iron and Wine vocals, as he does through much of the record. McMorrow shines lyrically and in his ability to break a listener’s heart in one song and follow it immediately with a playful track, neither of which is obviously outside of his comfort zone. His sound is truly entrancing and will most definitely attract a following stateside.
The Outside Track
Curious Things Given Wings
It is rare a commodity in traditional cultural music to find the structure of old infused with the passion of youth. The Outside Track is a phenomenally structured group with five core members, each of whom has gained international recognition and awards in his or her own field. Curious Things Given Wings, apart from having an eye grabbing title, is among the most seamlessly fused combination of traditional sounds out this year. The Outside Track describe their sound as a “marriage of Canadian, Scottish and Irish music and song.”
The band does not fall into the normal pitfalls of modern traditional music of feeble attempts to combine pop rock and fiddles. Rather, the exceedingly talented group lets the music speak for itself, using tempo changes and new, original arrangements to set their sound apart. Whether on the track “Panic!” with its almost Spanish sounding guitar bridge, or on “Silvy Silvy,” a true testament to the vocal talents of Norah Rendell and Mairi Rankin, The Outside Track finds the perfect balance of instrumentation and vocals. A group to watch in the future, their ethereal tone and willingness to take chances gives Curious Things Given Wings more than a leg to stand on.