By Earl Hitchner
THE EDGE OF SILENCE by Solas, Shanachie CD 78046, Shanachie Entertainment, 37 E. Clinton St., Newton, NJ 07860; (973) 579-7763.
The greatest risk is not taking one. That philosophy fuels the bold, challenging musical approach of Solas on their fifth studio album, “The Edge of Silence,” co-produced and engineered by Neil Dorfsman, who’s worked with Sting, Mark Knopfler, and Paul McCartney.
On the new album, Solas has expanded both the source material and the sonic possibilities for their music. None of the six songs is Irish, and all of the original melodies come from band members. Solas’s vaunted acoustic instrumentation — flute, fiddle, accordion, low whistle, four-string banjo, guitar, bouzouki — is supplemented by electric guitars, electric bass, electric keyboards, drum kit, tape loops, and various electronic effects.
Purists and so-called “tradheads” may flinch at this new direction, thinking Solas has lost their way if not their mind. But to their credit, the band has refused to plow the same furrows that have served them so well. It’s hard to grow without at least some change or chance-taking, and Solas is clearly committed to both.
They’ve certainly transformed Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness, Darkness,” a classic Youngbloods song from the late ’60s. Singer-songwriter Richard Shindell recorded an intriguing version five years ago, but Solas’s rendition eclipses it, layering fiddle and accordion on top of percussion and programming to create a heady backing for Deirdre Scanlan’s impressive lead vocal.
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In “Clothes of Sand,” a Nick Drake song likely inspired by the composer’s visit to Morocco in 1967, accordionist Mick McAuley steps forward for his first outright lead vocal on a Solas album. He has an excellent voice, compassionate and compelling, that captures the allusive — and often elusive — references of Drake’s lyrics.
Bob Dylan’s “Dignity” is given, appropriately enough, a brooding dignity through Scanlan’s sensitive singing. Tom Waits’s “Georgia Lee,” opening with Seamus Egan’s exquisite “Prelude #2,” is a heartbreaking story of a young runaway girl found dead, and Scanlan’s haunting vocal, abetted by McAuley’s accordion and Winifred Horan’s fiddle, deepens the bewildering loss described in the song.
The remaining two songs on the album are by an emerging singer-songwriter from Germany now living in Philadelphia, Antje Duvekot. Solas’s version of her song about child abuse, “Black Annis,” wisely avoids much of the pop artifice threading through Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” a flukish hit song of similar theme in 1987.
But no other song on “The Edge of Silence” matches the intensity of “The Poisonjester’s Mask,” Duvekot’s probing, piercing exploration of the consequences of social inertia and isolation. In this song of dark soul searching and apocalyptic vision, Scanlan’s singing is transcendent, her finest to date on record. The Tipperary-born vocalist’s rendering of the line “We raise cities and make cities fall” carries the weight of prescience, given the nightmarish events of Sept 11. Likewise, the flawless, subtly tremulous inflection she gives to the last line in the verse, “We raise children / And we write their names / On granite walls / We don’t like losing games,” is shattering in impact, and Egan’s blistering, Neil Youngish wail of an electric-guitar coda elicits the last drop of desperation and rage.
The album’s four instrumental tracks are prime Solas: intricate, engaging, tightly meshed, sometimes mischievous or cheeky. Supported by D=nal Clancy’s supple guitar playing, “Charmy Chaplin,” Horan’s composition, has spunk to spare, while her superb fiddling on another of her tunes, “Maybe in a Prayer,” applies a delicate balm to the track it segues from, “The Poisonjester’s Mask.”
This closer connection between tracks on “The Edge of Silence” is intentional, forming a larger mosaic than what could be achieved by merely falling back on the conventional alternation of dance tunes and slow airs with ballads. The Middle Eastern flavor at the opening of McAuley’s tune, “Beck Street,” for example, neatly anticipates the song following it, “Clothes of Sand,” and Egan’s Spanish-inflected “Who’s in the What Now” serves as both relief valve and recharger between the emotionally demanding “Black Annis” and “Dignity.” It is a propulsive tune that could have easily come out of the Jean Butler-Colin Dunne show he scored, “Dancing on Dangerous Ground.”
In a period when so much music has been commodified and compromised to the point of indifference, this quintet continues to make a difference by pushing the outer limits of what’s expected. For listeners who prize surprise as well as talent in music, Irish or otherwise, Solas delivers big-time in “The Edge of Silence.”