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CD Review Breakout album for Solas

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

THE WORDS THAT REMAIN, by Solas. #78023 from Shanachie Records, 37 E. Clinton St., Newton, NJ 07860; 1 (800) 497-1043

Winning back-to-back Association for Independent Music (formerly NAIRD) awards for their last two Shanachie albums, 1997’s "Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers" and 1996’s "Solas," merely whetted the appetite of Solas’ growing legion of followers. So, does the third album, due out in mid-October, match the excitement and virtuosity of the prior two?

That’s easy: no; it surpasses them.

No other Celtic band on the planet can equal this quintet’s innovative, often risk-taking arrangements, transforming the familiar into something new and lending to the new the grace and vigor of something ageless. Consider that the first track on each of their previous albums offered a fresh, rhythmically riveting setting of an Irish traditional song, "Níl ‘na Lá" and "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," and both quickly became signature numbers for Solas in concert.

On the new album, the group takes the same break-the-mold approach from the get-go, but with a delicious twist. This time, they embrace their American roots (Seamus Egan and Winifred Horan are, after all, U.S.-born) through "Pastures of Plenty." A Woody Guthrie song of migrant worker woes, it is made all the more cauterizing through the band’s driving, almost defiant arrangement, led by Karan Casey’s tour de force singing.

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Just when you think it’s safe to go into the next cut, Solas surprises again with a galvanizing medley of four reels, collectively called "The Stride Set," featuring standout compositions by Horan and Kilkenny-born box player Mick McAuley. But the part that will leave bluegrass, Irish trad, and acoustic fusion fans slack-jawed in wonder is an intricate cat-and-mouse banjo duet by Seamus Egan on four-string and guest Béla Fleck on five-string. This is not another example of an Irish band adding non-Irish "star power" to goose record sales or attract mainstream media attention. Instead, it’s a natural outgrowth of an earlier summit meeting in Colorado by these two gifted instrumentalists, whose styles, though different, are here bracingly complementary.

What Egan and Fleck have wrought instrumentally, Casey and guest Iris DeMent in a sense create vocally on "Song of Choice." Written by Peggy Seeger, daughter of Charles (Pete’s dad) and Ruth Crawford Seeger, it’s a song reminiscent of Guthrie’s best work, challenging complacency and a do-nothing attitude. The banked exasperation and edgy anger Casey and DeMent bring to the song invest it with tremendous power, and the decision by these two standout singers to trade verses and not merely have DeMent harmonize on the chorus is inspired. The presence of DeMent, like Fleck, has nothing to do with commercial calculation — just good taste and instinct. And the support given the two singers by John Doyle on guitar, Horan on fiddle, Egan on nylon-string guitar, and McAuley on concertina is spot on.

Is "The Words That Remain," then, all fire and fury? Not at all. Perhaps best known for their showstopping dance tunes and conscience-stinging songs, Solas also have an uncanny ability to pick slow airs of breathtaking beauty: "Song of the Kelpie" on the first album, "Crested Hens" and "Lament for Frankie" on the second. The third album is no exception, featuring "La Bruxa," a haunting Galician air on which McAuley’s accordion and Horan’s fiddle weave with gripping delicacy. Like her New England Conservatory of Music classmate John Medeski, whose classical training has skillfully evolved into the organ-powered jazz licks he plays in Medeski, Martin & Wood, Horan has transformed her own formal background into a captivating, distinctly traditional sound reflecting the best of both musical worlds.

No Solas album would be complete without a ballad or two of aching, brooding radiance from Karan Casey, and she comes through with one of her best ever, "A Chomaraigh Aoibhinn Ó." It’s a loving tribute to the Comeragh Mountains in her home county that is further distinguished by Doyle’s impeccable guitar picking, twin low whistles from Egan and McAuley, and guest Michael Aharon’s keyboard work.

Another highlight of the new album is the band’s more confident use of vocal harmony, with Doyle and McAuley joining Casey on "The Grey Selchie," learned from the singing of Jean Redpath, and Horan and McAuley singing the choruses with Casey on "Sráid An Chloig," co-penned by ex-Nomos lead singer John Spillane.

And for those who still miss past member John Williams’s concertina touches in the band, take heart in knowing that Mick McAuley, his replacement, plays a Colin Dipper concertina on at least two tracks. Without question, McAuley has been a boon to the overall sound of Solas, as his diverse contributions — button accordion, concertina, low whistle, vocals, two original tunes, a co-writing credit on a third — make quite apparent on the new album.

What words remain to be said about "The Words That Remain"? Other than the unmistakable impression that Solas, as sensational as they are now, will continue to stretch and grow and take chances. And that’s a scary thought, given how stirring their new album is, a knockout achievement from top to bottom by America’s premier Irish band.

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