Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Seamless Tapestry: The Chieftans' Voice of Ages

It's hard to believe that 50 years ago, The Chieftains released their first album. Their tenacious passion to bring ancient Irish folk music to a wider audience was especially brave considering the approaching debut then of a new band from Liverpool, a group that was about to change the sound of the planet. I'm happy to report that Voice of Ages (Hear Music, 2012), The Chieftains new record, is about to do the same in the 21st Century. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Voice of Ages is a glorious record that captures the unassuming and unpretentious sounds of a band still able to cut through the noise of pop and offer up a genuine, original, non-synthetic sound.

Voice of Ages also features collaborations of the finest order. Unlike the high-strung, record exec match-ups these days, such as Duets II with Tony Bennett, this record brings together musicians whose Celtic sensibility is matched by their respect for the band and its history. Imelda May, the bright new pop singer from Dublin, opens the set with a straight-ahead version of “Carolina Rua,” a traditional Irish folk song. Her buoyant performance of a tune she probably learned at an early age, sets the tone. Right from the start we know this is going to be a serious recording and not simply a frivolous commercial release.

“Come all ye fair and tender ladies” is a ballad usually sung by a man. For this occasion the Chieftains asked The Pistol Annies, aka Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, to perform a song not as far removed from their Texas roots as one might think. It’s a seamless blend of two beautiful sounds. The Carolina Chocolate Drops add a bit of bluegrass twang to another Irish traditional song, “Pretty Little Girl.” The infectious beat of the band supported strongly by The Chieftains covers a rather caustic vocal from Rhiannon Giddens. The jig fits the format, but the whole performance seems over the top.

The Chieftains

Bon Iver, whose high tenor was the contrasting sound to Adele this past year, sings “Down in the Willow Garden” arranged by Paddy Maloney and written by Charlie Monroe. Iver’s unusual voice is a sound I have yet to tastefully acquire. I prefer the earthy Irish vocal sound akin to sticking one’s face into the ocean breeze. But for this performance, of what is basically a murder-ballad, Iver has looked the other way. But these first four tracks are merely prologue. The record really takes off when we hear the song, “Lily Love” written especially for the session by Joy Williams and John Paul White of The Civil Wars. It’s a terrific song, full of the wonder of Irish music and Americana.

And speaking of Americana, The Decemberists put in a good turn on Bob Dylan's “When The Ship Comes In,” first heard back in 1963 on The Times They Are a-Changin'. Other highlights include Lisa Hannigan’s soulful performance on “My Lagan Love,” another traditional Irish fold song. A big part of interpreting Irish music is to perform it with an unaffected honesty, which accounts for its international appeal. The yearning and aching heart at the core Irish music is what Hannigan brings to the song. A beautiful rendition of Stephen Foster's “Hard Times Again No More” is complemented by Scottish bagpipes in a small recognition of Third generation Scot, Paolo Nutini, the Celt with the Italian name. It’s a stunning performance and the very best on the record.

Voice of Ages closes with a decidedly contemporary recording of a Latin dance song called "Lundu" with Carlos Nunez playing flute. The fusion of the two styles is, as always with a lot of Chieftains music, a seamless tapestry indicating the symmetry of a band that continues to break down musical barriers. It also speaks to a unified world in ways that only music can achieve.

The Chieftains have just embarked on yet another US tour, highlighted by a scheduled performance at Carnegie Hall, in New York, on St. Patrick’s Day.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

No comments:

Post a Comment