By Earle Hitchner
THE HOUR BEFORE DAWN, by Solas. Shanachie SH-78041 CD.
The extraordinary praise heaped on Solas for their three previous albums — 1996’s "Solas," 1997’s "Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers," 1998’s "The Words That Remain" –has stoked expectations for their fourth recording. Adding to the intrigue over the new album is the integration of a new lead singer, Tipperary’s Deirdre Scanlan, succeeding Waterford-born Karan Casey, whose reputation grew dramatically during her four-year tenure in the band.
"The Hour Before Dawn" displays all the attributes associated with Solas in the recording studio: originality, precision, boldness. Never content to coast, the band put their distinctive stamp on a Breton-flavored composition by Mick McAuley, "Boy/Girl Tune," where his button accordion playing swings joyously with Winifred Horan’s fiddling to summon the atmosphere of a spirited fest noz (Brittany’s version of a late-night céilí). Further exotica is provided by Seamus Egan in his tune "Homeless," a ruminative piece with piquant touches from him on nylon-string guitar and Horan on fiddle.
Button accordionist McAuley also catalyzes "What’s Up With Win/Sonny Brogan’s/Cahal’s Jig," hard-driving jigs that feature some riveting playing by Horan on fiddle and Egan on flute. The album’s high-energy highlight, however, is "The New Custom House/The Flavor of the Month/The Tinker’s Daughter/Dogs Among the Bushes/Pinch of Snuff," a medley of reels in which John Doyle leads off on acoustic guitar and is followed by Horan on fiddle, Egan on flute, and McAuley on button accordion to create a showpiece of unbridled brilliance.
Nothing Solas has ever recorded before instrumentally can top the shattering beauty of "A Little Child," a slow air learned from Norwegian hardanger fiddler Annbjørg Lien that Winifred Horan absolutely claims for herself on fiddle. Michael Aharon plays piano with a delicate spareness that allows just the right amount of space for Horan to fill, and McAuley’s playing of piano accordion pares back the sometimes stentorian tone of that instrument to lend a flawless symmetry. The eventual helixing of fiddle and piano accordion is magical in an arrangement that sets the standard for anyone undertaking this tune in the future.
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Deirdre Scanlan has a lovely voice, clear and direct, yet tinged with a lower-register huskiness well suited to some of the more melancholic songs she sings here. Her rendition of "Bruach na Carraige Báine" ("The Bank of the White Rock"), a song dating back to the 17th century and covered by other Irish singers in recent years, is breathtaking, full of pathos that never dips into lovesick sentimentality.
Backed only by Horan’s fiddle and a light keyboard drone, Scanlan’s version of "When My Love and I Parted" is a model of restraint, her voice a limpid prism through which the lyrics emerge all the more forcefully. She also sings "I Will Remember You," the Grammy-winning megahit for Sarah McLachlan, who wrote it with Seamus Egan and Dave Merenda for the 1995 movie "The Brothers McMullen." It’s an obvious risk to cover a song so indelibly linked in the public mind to a pop star. But Scanlan and the band wisely reinterpret it, crafting an arrangement as far removed from McLachlan’s as possible without losing hold of the original Egan melody that sparked the song.
Scanlan fares less well on lesser material, particularly "Last of the Great Whales," a song written by Andy Barnes that adopts the first-person viewpoint of the dying whale itself. The inventiveness of Solas’ arrangement cannot overcome the song’s awkward anthropomorphism and cloying imagery.
The lone clunker on the album is "A Miner’s Life," a sharp-edged song virtually blunted by John Doyle’s lead vocal, his first over the course of four Solas albums. The band’s multi-textured arrangement struggles in vain to mask the halting quality of Doyle’s singing on a song that Dick Gaughan did so stirringly on his 1986 album, "True and Bold."
Aside from that one tin-eared track, "The Hour Before Dawn" gleams with greater individual strengths from Solas and is an admirable addition to a body of recorded work that is the envy of most Irish traditional bands today.
With blues singer-guitarist Chris Smither as opener, Solas will be in concert on Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. at Symphony Space, Broadway and 95th Street, NYC. ( 864-5400).