Talking Elephant 2022
Not septuagenarian yet, Irish nightingale soars to the sky for spread ancient wisdom across the world.
Women’s vocals have the tendency of either sounding youthful even in their mistresses’ sunset years or rustling like precious parchment by then, which in both cases is a winning way to elevate a folk melody and take it beyond the pale – and then there are timeless voices that easily, at will, embrace these compelling qualities, as the pipes of Alison O’Donnell did when the lady fronted MELLOW CANDLE in the ’60s or FLIBBERTIGIBBET in the ’70s and as they do now. She used to play around with contemporary grooves, even guesting on a CATHEDRAL record, traditional, or faux-folklore, tunes have always been her forte, so new numbers reaching for the warbler’s roots and harking back to stories of the past aren’t unexpected,
Still, surprises are aplenty here: laid down in the company of producer Anthony Booster Bools and a troupe of cameoing instrumentalists, the album is possessed of a myriad mystical moments, so listener wouldn’t care whether it’s herself or some other free spirit that Alison’s evoking on the hypnotic, bodhrán-propelled opener “Lass From A Distant Shore” whose six-string strum, words-twists and harmonium lines are spellbinding. However, the less insistent, if more orchestrally stately, piano-rippled “Farewell To The Strawberry Tree” reveals the equally impressive, dramatic depth which will linger with the ballad’s choral coda to introduce the adventurous, tense weave of “I Wish We’d Sailed On The Jeanie Johnston” where polyphony and riffs reign before first resolving in scat and majestic a cappella uplift and then let “The Unwelcome Tide Of Tomorrow” flutter lightly like a lark. But though “Splendid Ring” has an electric filigree wrapped over the cut’s playfulness, “Brothers Grey” proffers an acoustic hymn for everyone to join in, and “Shout Our Redemption To The Silvery Pines” a silvery delivery to render the poetic allure of O’Donnell’s thunderous stanzas truly irresistible.
Sure, the dry drone behind “The Man Who Taught The Nation” can feel alienating to many, yet the impact of this uilleann pipes-adorned epic, dedicated to Pádraig Pearse, is tremendous, while the alliterated wonder of “Four Fine Females” – focusing on Alison’s famous compatriots Rosie Hackett, Peg Plunkett, Constance Markievicz and Veronica Guerin – goes much further than its delicate drift seems to suggest, the song’s transparency exuding harsh reality-stoked passion which is bound to resolve in a fiddle-led reel. There’s no better contrast between that desperate dance and “Scarlet Berries For The Mistle Thrush” that’s accompanied solely by birds’ tweets, and no better logic than the finale being “The Birds Of Belfast Lough” that ups the angst-ridden momentum only to bid farewell and warrant a new spin for the disc of immense beauty and gravitas.
It’s a masterpiece of many nuances, after all, the best present the songstress could bring forth to herself and her flock on her forthcomimg 70th birthday.