By Earle Hitchner
BLACKBIRDS & THRUSHES, by Niamh Parsons. CD #1197 on Green Linnet Records, 43 Beaver Brook Rd., Danbury, CT 06810; (203) 730-0333 or (800) 468-6644.
This is the Dublin-born singer’s third solo album in the last seven years, and it’s by far her best. Parsons’s husky, often smoldering voice is best served with the least amount of garnish, and the spare, straightforward approach she takes to most of the songs here becomes an ideal fit for that voice.
Male hormonal urges are amusingly depicted in the title track, with young women likened in successive verses to birds, ducks, rushes, trout and salmon, and hares that young men would, in order, beat the bushes for, swim after, scythe, fish, and chase with hounds.
Another upbeat, whimsical song is "Alexander," the title referring to the Macedonian king of 356-323 B.C. who conquered the world, then wept that he had no other goal to challenge him. In the song, this analogue is meant to suggest that a woman of means should not "place her mind on riches nor no such worldly store" in her dealings with a poor suitor.
The majority of songs, however, concern heartbreak, whether over the leaving of a lover (through emigration, rejection, or death) or of Ireland itself. "Sally Sits Weeping" is a vocal duet by Niamh and Anne Parsons, and the sisters give a stirring, unaccompanied rendition of this traditional song about a woman spurned in love.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
"Kilnamartyra Exile," hauntingly sung by Parsons with just guitar and a light keyboard drone behind her, summons up all the dashed hopes of an aging Irish emigrant who sought "gold and sun" but instead found only "bleak misfortune" in a foreign land. With the skillful underplaying of Josephine Marsh on button accordion, Parsons also movingly taps into the raw emotions of "The Wounded Hussar," a song about a cavalryman dying in the arms of his true love.
The alternating vocals of Parsons and Waterford’s Ciarán Ó Gealbháin (of the band Danú) on "Droimeann Donn Dílis" are Irish singing at its least fussy and most compelling. Two other songs are complete solos by Parsons, "The Banks of the Nile" and "The Maid on the Shore," and she imparts a subtly etched passion that brings out the best in each.
"The Flower of Magherally O" — a song previously sung by Len Graham, Kevin Conneff, and Altan’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, among others — is rendered with a freshness and expressiveness that separate it from those admirable interpretations. The same is true of "Fear a Bhata" ("The Boatman"), a song covered by many vocalists but here sung with a distinctive grace and delicacy to the restrained backing of guitar, piano, bass, and bodhrán.
"Blackbirds & Thrushes" is an album to rejoice in, matching a voice of empathetic intensity with songs and accompaniment that showcase it properly.