BY SEAN SMITH
Lúnasa, “Cas” • They could have just released seven of the 12 tracks on this album and thoroughly delighted most, if not all, of the Lúnasa fan base. But as befits a band that for more than 20 years has continually moved ahead instead of resting on its laurels – their last recording had them playing with the RTE Orchestra, after all – Lúnasa has taken yet another step forward. In addition to presenting their layered, harmonically sophisticated, exquisitely arranged brand of Irish instrumental music, on “Cas” they blend their sound with five different guest vocalists. Not that the guys haven’t collaborated with singers before – a select couple of hundred Boston-area fans might recall the band’s impromptu gig with Karan Casey at the “Sanctuary Session” benefit in Somerville in March of last year – but a recording project like this represents a significant commitment of time and energy, not to mention creativity.
Lúnasa, incidentally, has a full roster assembled here: Kevin Crawford (flutes, whistles), Cillian Vallely (uilleann pipes, low whistle), Trevor Hutchinson (double bass, bouzouki, lap steel guitar), Sean Smyth (fiddle) and Ed Boyd (guitar), as well as Colin Farrell (fiddle, whistles) and Patrick Doocey (guitar), who typically sub in for Smyth and Boyd on the band’s North American tours.
The team-ups with the guest vocalists are glorious, and typically Lúnasan, since neither singers nor songs fit neatly into one category. On the Irish-trad side, alt-rocker-turned-folkie Natalie Merchant lends her gravitas to the Napoleonic lament “The Bonny Light Horseman,” while Dublin’s Daoirí Farrell gives an invigorating, powerful take on the emigration song “Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore.” Tim O’Brien brings his Americana chops, and deft mandolin-playing, to “The Water Is Wise” – co-written with fellow Grammy winner Sarah Jarosz – and blues guitarist Eric Bibb tenderly offers up the spiritual “My Lord What a Morning.” Superb as all the songs are, it’s hard not to single out Mary Chapin Carpenter’s rendition of “The Irish Girl” – a vivid portrait of regret for youthful impulse by unjustly neglected English songwriter Peter Bond – as the highlight. Chapin Carpenter’s lower-end alto anchors the song in a perfect equilibrium of sadness and dignity.
A hallmark of these five tracks lies in the fact that you don’t have a sense of anyone – band or soloist – reining themselves in or being boxed out. There’s plenty of space for the vocals, but Lúnasa also is able to assert its presence: Crawford, Vallely, Farrell and Smyth all drop in for a cameo at various times during “Water Is Wise,” before joining together at the very end (Crawford with a zesty high harmony at one point); fiddles, flute and pipes dovetail with the mournfulness in Merchant’s voice, and the resolve in Farrell’s; Crawford and Vallely’s trademark harmonized whistles herald the soothing devotional quality in Bibb, while the delicacy of Boyd’s guitar and Hennessey’s bass buoy Chapin Carpenter.
Oh, and as for the aforementioned seven instrumental tracks, these display the full range of the band’s technical ability and inventiveness. They are also an opportunity to truly appreciate the virtues of Boyd and Doocey’s fine accompaniment, as well as that of Hennessey, whose stellar work on double bass sometimes is overlooked – listen to his contributions in particular on the latter part of the opening “Tinker’s Frolics” medley, which has the classic Lúnasa shifts of tempo, time signature, and mood (not to mention one of those time-honored flute/pipes pairings we’ve known and loved for so long), or at the outset of the jig set “Sinead Máire” – a reprise from Vallely’s 2016 album “Raven’s Rock” featuring two of his originals wrapped around another by his brother Niall.
A selection of Breton music, “Pontivity,” is surely one of their best concoctions, with yet another rapturous Crawford-Vallely duet on the first tune, Boyd’s guitar gently ushering in the transition to the second, and the fiddles building momentum on the third. “Within a Mile” is the quintessential climax, complete with a brief bass-and-guitars break in the middle and an overlay of repeating phrases from the lead instruments as the medley ends. There’s also a bit of homage to legendary Boston musician Larry Reynolds with “Tribute to Larry,” which contains the affectionate reel of the same name penned by Maurice Lennon.
“Cas” is often translated from Irish Gaelic as “to turn” or “a change of direction,” which in Lúnasa’s case doesn’t mean that they’ll continue heading the same way – but that, if form holds true, they’ll definitely keep moving. [lunasa.ie]
The Fretless, “Live from the Art Farm” • This Canadian quartet is one of the more high-profile exponents of what’s often called “chambergrass,” which mixes Celtic, old-timey, bluegrass and other folk/traditional styles with chamber music instrumentation and dynamics. There’s a pretty strong Boston connection to this band, and arguably to the chambergrass genre itself: Former Berklee College of Music students Trent Freeman (violin, viola) and Eric Wright (cello) originally co-founded The Fretless with fellow Berklee acquaintance Ivonne Hernandez – who had earlier been part of another local chambergrass ensemble, the Folk Arts Quartet – and Karrnel Sawitsky (violin, viola); Hernandez left after their third release, “Bird’s Nest,” to be replaced by Ben Plotnick (violin, viola).
“Live from the Art Farm,” the band’s fourth album, is a departure of sorts. Where their previous recordings had a lot of original or contemporary tunes – composed by the band members as well as musicians like Liz Carroll, Adam Sutherland, and Gordon Duncan – this one is heavy on the Irish tradition, with stalwarts such as “Jenny’s Welcome to Charlie,” “Sally Gardens,” “The Pipe on the Hob” and “The Star of Munster.” In that sense, it’s of a piece with the trend toward Irish-Americana fusion we’ve seen in recent years, a la We Banjo 3 or Altan’s “Widening Gyre” album.
But with The Fretless and its chamber/classical influence, there’s a particularly fascinating interplay of sounds: a fiddle taking the lead, with intermittent plucks, flourishes, harmonies or drones from the other instruments – or sometimes counter-rhythms underneath – and then Wright’s cello or Freeman’s viola, for example, stepping up with a bluegrass-like improvisation before the quartet returns to the original melody.
Sometimes, such as on “The Killavil Fancy,” the feel is leisurely, even whimsical. And then there’s the intensity of “Jenny’s Welcome,” driven by urgent rhythmic chops from the viola that are taken up by the cello, culminating in a masterful transition to “Bear Island.” The arrangements can be so dense and intricate, you may find yourself revisiting a track – such as “Miss Thornton’s Reel” or “Pipe on the Hob” – just to listen to what’s going on behind the melody. (It bears mentioning that not all of “Live at the Art Farm” is high-octane: In addition to the aforementioned “Killavil Fancy,” for instance, is a lovely rendition of the air “Dawning of the Day.”)
For the hard-core purist, chambergrass might raise questions: Is this a case of traditional music not so much being interpreted but simply used as a vehicle for experimentation, thus diluting its essence? Well, there’s nothing diluted in how The Fretless conveys the power and immediacy – not to mention the grace and beauty – of the tradition. Freeman, Wright, Plotnick and Sawitsky mine those qualities in refreshing and exciting ways. [thefretless.com]