BUSHES & BRIARS, by Susan McKeown, CD #ALU-1008, Alula Records, P.O. Box 62043, Durham, NC 27715, (800) 932-5852.
Labels can be troubling for musicians, often placing them in Procrustean beds that lop off whatever isn’t easily categorized about their style or choices. Dublin-born singer Susan McKeown has been tagged with a few different labels – “new acoustic Irish” among them – that fall short of what she really is: a singer of far-ranging interests and intelligence who’s not afraid to integrate jazz, classical, and world-music instrumentation and arrangements into her repertoire.
All were amply displayed on “Bones,” her 1995 album with Chanting House. And on “Bushes & Briars,” an album wholly devoted to traditional songs, she again seasons her work with world-music (tambura, hurdy-gurdy), classical (French horn, bassoon), and jazz (clarinet) spices.
“The Mountain Streams Where the Moorcocks Grow,” which McKeown learned from the singing of Paddy Tunney, intriguingly conveys some of these varied influences. Seamus Egan’s low whistle playing is complemented by the tabla skill of Samir Chatterjee and a steady background drone, creating a soundscape of Indian and Irish rhythms behind McKeown’s huskily brooding, jazz-flecked reading of the lyrics. The effect transforms a familiar traditional song into something refreshingly different, as McKeown manages to explore emotions elicited, not merely denoted, by the words.
Like Solas’s lead singer, Karan Casey, McKeown has an abiding
admiration for songs sung by Dick Gaughan. “Westlin’ Winds,” for example, was on “Bones.” As she did there, McKeown smartly avoids imitation, a form of flattery that invites invidious comparisons, and comes up with her own impressive take on “Craigie Hill.”
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
She sings its first two verses unaccompanied, with evocative vibrato, and the twinning of Greg Anderson’s acoustic guitar and Jerry O’Sullivan’s uilleann pipes after the third verse expertly underscores the wistful sadness of this emigration song. Righteous anger surfaces in McKeown’s intentionally disdainful rendition of such lines as “The landlords and their agents, their bailiffs and their beagles / The land of our forefathers we were forced for to give o’er.”
Other tracks that stand out are McKeown’s unaccompanied, head-thrown-back version of “Bonny Boy” and her inventive setting of “Banks of Claudy,” where she is joined by Nikki Matheson in a contrapuntal exercise overlaying the Irish song with a French one.
Not everything succeeds on the album, however. “H-+ Abha-fnn” is a short song of repetitive phrasing that does not bear up well under the weighty arrangement given it, and the aural wash of synth and atmospherics behind “D?nal ?g” pushes it into noodly triteness.
Those exceptions aside, “Bushes & Briars” is a well-produced, well-executed album showcasing a singer whose sure grasp of traditional music’s subtleties is a cause for celebration.
– Earle Hitchner