November CD Reviews

Paul Brady, “Unfinished Business” •
What kind of lens should you use in scrutinizing Paul Brady? Do you take the long-distance view, back to his early Irish folk revival days with The Johnstons and, of course, his seminal work in the 1970s with Planxty and Andy Irvine, and recordings with traditional musicians like Matt Molloy, Tommy Peoples, Andy McGann, and Paddy Reynolds (not to mention his role in the underappreciated “The Green Crow Caws” album of settings of Sean O’Casey poems)? Or do you focus on the latter part of his career – dating from roughly 1981 – as a pop-based singer-songwriter whose songs have been covered by Santana, Dave Edmunds, Tina Turner, and Bonnie Raitt?

With “Unfinished Business,” Brady seems to suggest that we can integrate both perspectives. Nine of the album’s eleven tracks are co-written by Brady; the remaining two are traditional songs that include guest appearances by – hold onto your hat – none other than Andy Irvine. More on that to come.

Those who are wedded now and forever to the “Arthur McBride/Lakes of Pontchartrain” incarnation of Brady may find it difficult to acknowledge, but the fact is he operates very comfortably in the contemporary/pop vein – which includes touches of funk, soul, R&B as well as rock. He knows how to come up with hooks, like the repeating chorus in “Say You Don’t Mean,” the mandolin-whistle-keyboard riff on “Maybe Tomorrow,” the piano interlude on “Once in a Lifetime.” Everyone knows he can play acoustic guitar, but he is equally proficient on electric guitar, keyboards, bass and drums, and he uses that distinctive soaring voice of his to belt out lyrics like any arena-stage denizen.

Brady also shows a talent for teamwork with his co-writers. Pulitzer-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon worked with Brady on three of the songs (“I Love You But You Love Him,” “Say You Don’t Mean,” “I Like How You Think”), and they are gems of sardonic, but not anti-social, tonality: stuffed with unlikely, random literary and pop culture references (including our hometown Bruins), and outrageous wordplay (“James Joyce and Sam Beckett/They scanned the Sandymount sky/All they saw was small potatoes, they’d bigger fish to fry”). Sharon Vaughn – who’s teamed with Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, and George Jones – collaborated with Brady on five tracks, and these are of the romantic/realistic, emotionally accessible kind, like the winsome “Oceans of Time” and the title track, a narrative of hopeful love haunted by history. Canadian Ralph Murphy – he’s written for Kathy Mattea and Randy Travis – gets co-credit for “Once in a Lifetime,” a tender give-love-a-chance plea with pedal steel guitar to boot.

The two traditional songs are “The Cocks Are Crowing,” Irvine’s harmonica and Francesco Turrisi’s accordion weaving through the soft-jazz vibe of Brady’s arrangement; and – the album’s closing track – an American version (by way of the recently departed Mike Seeger) of the classic ballad “Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender” – just Brady’s voice and guitar, ably backed by Irvine’s mandolin and harmonica. Mention should be made, by the way, of the excellent backing vocals throughout the album by, variously, Suzanne Savage, Bairbre Anne, Sinead Farrelly

It’s understandable if the latter makes you nostalgic for “Plains of Kildare,” “The Jolly Soldier” and all those other tracks of that classic album of yore. Just don’t lose sight of the bigger picture – that Brady moves around a much larger musical landscape. []

The Nesbitt Family, “Devil’s Bit Sessions” •
Speaking of being typecast (see Brady, Paul, above), Mairead Nesbitt is known to millions as the Celtic Woman with the violin. But she comes from an impressive musical heritage celebrated on this album in a fashion (thankfully) far removed from the glitz and glamor with which she’s been associated.

Nesbitt goes back to her native Tipperary at the foot of Devil’s Bit Mountain to play traditional tunes with 13 members of her family, their ages ranging from 10 to 81, including parents John and Kathleen, and brothers Seán, Michael, Noel and Karl (some of whom have appeared on Nesbitt’s previous recordings). The album was recorded in the Nesbitt home to provide an informal “session” atmosphere, with some familiar, beloved standards like “Bunch of Green Rushes,” “Beare Island,” “Smash the Windows” and “The Gatehouse Maid” among the selections.

There are five full-ensemble tracks, among them “Captain O’Kane,” (a Turlough O’Carolan piece which is given a dramatic, orchestral-like treatment) and the rest spotlight duos, trios and other combinations of Nesbitts, including a hornpipe/reel medley (“Fisher’s Rant/Glen Road”) on fiddle, accordion and bouzouki; a leisurely jig set (“Old Lark on the Strand/Charlie’s Aunt”) that includes fine harp-playing by Lilly May; a rousing flute duet by Noel and Karl, accompanied by Michael on bodhran; and a banjo-bouzouki duet by Michael and Karl.
Mairead displays her artistry on a pair of intricate hornpipes, “The Japanese Hornpipe/The Contradiction,” and as part of a spellbinding fiddle trio with Kathleen and Frances on the air “The Wild Geese.”

Sprinkled throughout are conversations among family members about where and from whom a particular tune was learned, and you rather want to hear more – or perhaps read some summarized version – of these. Such details help to reinforce the idea that this music has roots wide and deep, and whatever the scope of its presentation on big stage and TV screen, it is firmly ensconced in home and hearth. []