Lankum, “Between the Earth and Sky” • Formerly known as Lynched – a reference to co-founding brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch – this quartet of self-described “Dublin folk miscreants” has made quite the impression with its populist, gritty, infectious blend of traditional, music hall, and original material. But that description really doesn’t do justice to Lankum: With unrepentant Dublin voices and occasionally cranky-sounding squeezeboxes, fiddles, whistles, and pipes, they serve notice that unpolished (yet proficient) folk music deserves as much attention as the more technically refined version. But there’s also an underlying sophistication to Lankum’s approach, an appreciation for the music’s roots and its place in the human experience.
“Between the Earth and Sky,” the band’s second release, shows a stronger focus and attention to pacing and arrangement, and projects an overall sense of a band comfortable in its collective skin. The elements that make them such compelling listening are evident from the first track, as Radie Peat leads “What Will We Do When We Have No Money?” with a voice that is piercing and harshly beautiful, set over an uilleann pipe drone – the band shows a fondness for the lengthy sustained note, whether produced by vocals or musical instrument, giving their sound an almost primal intensity that’s sometimes pervasive enough to lodge in your central nervous system.
Peat commands the closing track as well, “Willow Garden,” a murder ballad that originated in Ireland and later resurfaced in the Appalachians. Backed only by harmonium and Cormac Mac Diarmada’s softly pulsing fiddle (as if playing a waltz to the gallows), Peat unflinchingly mines the stark character of the song’s narrative, essentially the murderer’s final confession; the only comfort we’re left with is his acceptance of his fate.
Peat is one of many attractions on “Between the Earth and Sky.” They do a sprightly take on the anti-recruitment satire “Sergeant William Bailey” (credited to Peadar Kenney, author of the Irish national anthem), complete with a lively drum-aided quick-march at the end. The very next track offers an entirely different slant on political songs, Johann Esser and Wolfgang Langhoff’s anti-fascist “Peat Bog Soldiers,” sung here a cappella in enthralling four-part harmony.
Another study in contrast is two back-to-back band compositions. “Bad Luck to the Rolling Water” is a parody of sentimental, loved-and-lost Irish songs peppered with literary and classical references that grow increasingly hilarious each verse (“She might not have been Aurora, a Flora or Diana/But she sang songs in the back tap room along to the ould piana/She was not Euternatia, nor was she Venus bright/But she could drink much more than you and beat you in a fight”).
The sardonic tone is turned on its head in the following track, “Déanta in Éireann,” a modern-day emigration song in the tradition of broadsides or street ballads (with titles like “A Meditation on the Many Woes of Eire”); caustic lyrics reference economic and political betrayal at home, and relative success abroad that can’t quite compensate for feelings of inadequacy and guilt (“Set up in the New World with a golden passport/Free drink and kudos your eternal reward/But your heart sinks when you think upon Éireann”), with a slowly building instrumental cacophony at the climax.
There’s yet more, including their measured, deliberative rendition of “The Turkish Reveille” (sometimes known as “The Golden Vanity”), a traditional ballad of heroism and betrayal, and “The Townie Polka,” played much slower than one might expect of a polka, such that it sounds like some odd processional – and in fact, the liner notes relate the legend that somewhere in Donegal you can hear the tune played by the ghost of a traveling musician.
After four or five decades of the folk/trad revival, it’s easy to get caught up in what we think the music “should” sound like. Lankum defies many of those expectations with equal dollops of relish and unpretentiousness, as well as astute scholarship and imagination – and they sound awfully good while doing so. [lankumdublin.com]
“Goldenhair” (music by Brian Byrne, words by James Joyce) • When Joyce published “Chamber Music,” his first collection of poetry, in 1907, he remarked to his brother that some of the 36 poems were “pretty enough to be put to music. I hope someone will do so…” And sure enough, there have been numerous adaptations over the years, by the likes of Samuel Barber, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, the 1960s experimental Irish folk group Dr. Strangely Strange, and two members of Sonic Youth, among others.
The latest to put his stamp on “Chamber Music” is Irish native Byrne, a Golden Globe-nominated composer whose credits include the stage production “Heartbeat of Home” and the film “Albert Nobbs.” Rather than confining himself to one musical genre, Byrne – who also plays keyboards – flavors the Joycean lyrics with big band, adult contemporary, soft jazz, bluegrass and, yes, even Celtic. Contributors include Glenn Close (she does readings of “Play On” and “Silently”); Julian Lennon, Kurt Elling and Declan O’Rourke on vocals; the RTÉ Orchestra; and North Carolina bluegrass/old-timey outfit Balsam Range.
Joao Almeida Flor described “Chamber Music” as a kind of “aesthetic laboratory” in which Joyce tinkered with the “interaction between sound and meaning,” in preparation for the works that would mark him as one of the 20th century’s greatest authors. The 36 pieces are love poems written in different styles, revisiting traditional themes and topics in European love poetry with typically Joycean vividness (“There, where the gay winds stay to woo/the young leaves as they pass/My love goes slowly, bending to/Her shadow on the grass”; “I hear an army charging upon the land/And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees”; “Play on, invisible harps, unto Love/Whose way in heaven is aglow/At that hour when soft lights come and go/Soft sweet music in the air above/And in the earth below”).
So it seems entirely appropriate to hear these and other words set against a multiplicity of musical contexts: Curtis Stigers and Sara Gazarek’s fine duet on the jazzy, zesty “Winds of May,” with its “Well-a-day!” invocation; “Cool Is the Valley,” which begins with Balsam Range’s soft gospel-style vocal harmonies and ramps up into an Appalachian-Irish frolic, kick-started by Eric Rigler’s uilleann pipes; Elling’s winsome take on “Goldenhair,” highlighted by Byrne’s slick piano solo; the pub-sing atmosphere of “Flowery Bells” (complete with bodhran accompaniment), majestically led by O’Rourke; Andrew Strong’s dynamic vocals on “Why Have You Left Me Alone (I Hear an Army),” the funk/soul piece de resistance that closes out the album.
Ultimately, “Goldenhair” is too ambitious for its own good – a few too many over-orchestrated slow ballads that diminish the energy built up by some of the above tracks. But Byrne successfully locates the passion and ardor found throughout “Chamber Music” into a thoroughly modern, cosmopolitan milieu. One thinks Joyce would have given a terse but gracious nod of approval. [brianbyrnecomposer.com]
James Vincent McMorrow, “We Move” • Dublin songwriter McMorrow seems to fashion his recording projects from sojourns in remote or far-flung places. His Thoreauesque 2010 debut “Early in the Morning” was recorded in a secluded house by the sea, and the studio where he made “Post Tropical” (2014) – a definitive move away from his indie-folk style toward a more electronic/R&B sound – sat on a pecan farm in a remote desert town in Texas.
For “We Move,” McMorrow went, literally, in a different direction, spending four months in Los Angeles. And the album has an unmistakable urban sheen to it, replete with R&B, funk and soul, and various synthesizers and other electronic keyboards undergirding McMorrow’s wispy yet grainy falsetto. Where on “Early in the Morning” he focused on nature as an ever-present influence in everyday life, here McMorrow deals with internal forces, notably the mental health struggles he experienced in his youth – and which at one point landed him in the hospital with an eating disorder. It’s this episode he recalls in “I Lie Awake Every Night” (“Have you come here to save me/Have you come here to waste my time again?/Ask me too many questions/As me too many questions I can’t stand”), juxtaposed against a frothy keyboard chordal backing.
“Lost Angles” (a play on the name of his temporary home) displays a similar mix of vulnerability and determination, countering “Is it better to live your life in shallow water or risk failure drowning in the deep end?” with “Don’t let fear control you,” as does “One Thousand Times” (“I find a way to make your love more complicated/What if I could change, if I could change if you could save me?”).
Which is not to imply that “We Move” is a 45-minute excursion into self-pity; introspective, yes, but of an honest and probably healthy kind. It would have been interesting to hear this contemplation served by his earlier musical incarnation – set against a more acoustic background, rather than an electronic swirl that sometimes distracts from his words. Journeys, however, aren’t always about where you’re going, but what you feel you must leave behind to get there: As he wrote on his website, “All I can do is create what makes me happy, trust that even if that understanding doesn’t happen right away, that time and distance can change anything.” [ jamesvmcmorrow.com]