Sharon Shannon, “Sacred Earth” • There aren’t many people who can pull off making an accordion-centric album featuring a waltz from a 1905 operetta; Shetland fiddlers playing a New England-style reel; an innovative, Berklee-educated cellist; African musicians, instruments and rhythms; and vocal cameos by, among others, the legendary Finbar Furey. But that’s Sharon Shannon for you, a superlative musician and visionary who has been transporting the Irish accordion to heretofore distant territories – reggae, country, rockabilly and Argentinian tango, to name a few – for more than 25 years now.
“Sacred Earth,” Shannon’s 10th studio album, is probably too ambitious for its own good. There is just so much going on, so many avenues of exploration, that what could have been the album’s defining characteristic – an Irish/African crossover – winds up being diluted. Yet the sheer musicality and vibrance demonstrated by Shannon (who also plays fiddle and whistle here, and co-wrote most of the material) and her cohorts is enough to compensate for the less fulfilling moments of “Sacred Earth.”
The album’s African dimension is strongest on three tracks: “Rusheen Bay” – a pulsating jig/reel combo – and the loping “Sacred Earth” are flavored by the Mali-style guitar-playing of co-producer Justin Adams, and the percussion of Ghanaian Abass Dodoo; “Sea Shepherd” is more serene and meditative, with Senegal kora player Seckou Keita taking center stage.
Shannon has long shown a penchant for sharing the spotlight with others, or even ceding it – notably to singers like Steve Earle (“Galway Girl”) and Imelda May (“Go Tell the Devil”). On this album, she gives plenty of room to musicians like Keita, as well as guitarist Jim Murray and cellist Rushad Eggleston (former Berklee College of Music student and co-founder of Crooked Still), such as on “The Merry Widow” – a waltz by Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Léhar, from the operetta of the same name; additionally, Shannon teams up with a quintet of Shetland fiddlers for “Frenchie’s Reel,” which evokes New England contra dance music. There also are a few tracks, like “The Bull Fiddle” – perhaps best described as a 21st-century ceili band number – where the focus tends to be more on Shannon.
The three vocal selections present quite the contrast: “The Machine,” performed by New Mexico-based singer/guitarist Alyra Rose, is a kind of folk/hip-hop hybrid protest song, while “Let’s Go” sees Shannon return to the blues/rockabilly domain, this time with Australian duo Hat Fitz (guitar) and Cara Robinson (vocals, drums). Furey’s cover of the Jim Reeves hit “He’ll Have to Go” – the last known song Elvis Presley recorded in a studio – is sentimental as it gets, but is imbued with his customary sincerity.
So, yes, a lot to take in, and not all of it works – “The Machine,” for one, sits rather awkwardly among the other tracks. But at certain times you can sense the tremendous enthusiasm Shannon has for this diversity of collaborations, as if she were hosting a marathon music party on her back porch and welcoming a continual stream of visitors. Maybe next time the guest list will be pared down somewhat. [sharonshannon.com]
Old Blind Dogs, “Room with a View” • OBD sometimes seems like an under-the-radar band, despite the fact that it has been around for 25 years and has 13 albums to its credit. Perhaps that’s because the band’s lineup has changed considerably over the years – fiddler Jonny Hardie is the sole original member – although this particular roster has been largely intact for most of the past decade. But OBD albums are invariably a reason to celebrate, and to luxuriate in the band’s rootsy yet cosmopolitan sound, definitively Scottish with hints of African, Caribbean, and American/old-timey.
One of OBD’s hallmarks has been a prominent role for percussion – not of the regimented Scots pipes-and-drum corps variety, but a rock-influenced freestyle that works around the contours of the other instruments. And their newest member is one of the best in that capacity: Donald Hay, who has played with the likes of Kate Rusby, Nuala Kennedy, Shooglenifty, and The Transatlantic Sessions. He’s settled in quite well, thank you, with Hardie and the two other OBDs, Aaron Jones (vocals, bouzouki, guitar) and Ali Hutton (pipes, whistles, guitar).
The opening track, “Bunker Hill,” is about as dead-on an introduction as there is to OBD’s dash and skillfulness: Jones and Hay lay out a slowly churning riff that becomes a backdrop over which Hutton and Hardie play, at double speed, the reel “Bunker Hill”; and then Jones lets loose on a Scottishized American tune, “Sandy Boys,” with Hay going full bore (his bass drum at the beginning is positively propulsive), and after Hutton and Hardie join in, the band slides effortlessly back to the opening theme to close out the set.
Those who like imaginative, challenging arrangements will find plenty to admire here. Hutton’s flute is at the center early on in the “Newe” set, easing along on a slow strathspey, then powering up for a dynamically accented reel that Hardie takes up to great effect. On “Nevertheless,” Jones and Hardie team up for a glorious rendition of the traditional jig “Billy Rush,” and then Hutton (on low whistle) and Hay shift into “Nina’s Gig,” followed by “The North Star,” Hutton’s pipes leading the way. There’s also a set of French gavottes to broaden the spectrum and add texture.
OBD offers up an equally enjoyable selection of songs, all splendidly voiced by Jones (and harmonized by the other three), notably Brian Cromarty’s chilling “A Ring on Her Hand,” built around the machinations of an arranged royal marriage, and “The Earl O March’s Daughter,” by Lionel McLelland, based on the true story of an 18th-century nobleman’s daughter who pined for her exiled lover – and died broken-hearted when, upon his return, he failed to recognize her because she had so deteriorated (she’s now said to haunt the family castle). The band also does a most creditable job with the traditional Napoleonic ballad, “The Warlike Lads of Russia” which somehow seems a bit more relevant nowadays.
Despite the occasionally grim subject matter, “Room with a View” has an overall positive outlook, and shows that Old Blind Dogs continue to be blessed with a strong vision. [oldblinddogs.co.uk]
Karrie, “Perpetual Motion” • The Karrie in question is Karrie O’Sullivan, who for years pursued a career as a horse trainer in County Kerry before being grounded by the great recession. She hadn’t particularly aspired to be a singer-songwriter, but lo and behold, it wound up suiting her just fine. Having a successful singer-songwriter in the family – Mick Flannery, her nephew – helped matters some, connections-wise, but as “Perpetual Motion” (her second album) shows, she has plenty of assets with which to work.
For starters, her voice has elements of Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones, maybe even a bit of k.d. lang/Lucinda Williams alt-country – mellow and easy-going, some jazz as well as folk inflections, and possessing a solid middle range but capable of reaching the high notes. Her writing, meanwhile, has a neatly cultivated sense of droll self-deprecation and introspection that avoids self-loathing or self-pity: “I lost my man to a jacket and skirt girl/She looked so dull, it did me no good/How can I learn from that mistake/When I can only be myself” (“Tryin’ to Be Honest”); “Real life comes with roses/And it comes with deep bruises/And the color fades in both/Real love, well, it comes with arguments” (“Perpetual Motion”).
O’Sullivan also displays a healthy realism about letting go when it’s time, on “The Wicker Chair” – which deftly shifts speeds and time signatures – and on “No Love in Greed,” with its coda “Time for all of its spite/It too has a kind side/And has welcome for a lesson learned.” Lest you think she’s too cynical or jaded, though, in “To Lost Opportunities” she proclaims “Jack, no matter what they say/I am still a romantic/And the master of none.” And so, she rides off into the sunset, with a discerning eye that doesn’t get too dazzled by the light. (facebook.com/karriesmusic]