February Album Reviews

Colum Sands, “Song Bridge”

Colum Sands, “Song Bridge” • It’s understandable to experience a twinge of sympathy for someone whose sibling is in the same profession as he or she is but far more well-known – and, simultaneously, render comparative judgment on their bodies of work. Think of Mike Maddux, a journeyman pitcher (he played for the Red Sox for a couple of seasons) whose brother Greg was one of the most dominant hurlers of his time, winning four consecutive Cy Young awards in the early 1990s. It’s easy to dismiss Mike, until you realize that the percentage of baseball players who actually make the major leagues at all is typically below 10 percent.

So don’t feel bad for Colum Sands, or sell him short. It’s true that his brother Tommy is an internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter (author of “There Were Roses” and “Your Daughters and Your Sons,” among many others) and social activist, but Colum has done really quite well for himself, thank you. He has performed throughout Europe and the US in settings small and large (including Carnegie Hall), released eight albums of his own and produced several dozen more for others, authored a songbook, been honored for his services to folk and traditional music, and written songs that have been covered by people like Liam Clancy, Tommy Makem, Andy Irvine, and Mick Hanly. 

It’s important to remember how much the Sands siblings’ love of and devotion to music was shaped by their parents and family life – after all, Colum and Tommy started out in a band with brothers Ben and Eugene and sister Anne. And as this new album indicates, those shared influences have led to similar – not identical – styles, sounds, and outlooks that are to be savored: namely, an abiding concern for people and an unstinting hope for a better world. 

Sands (Colum, that is) sings in hushed, gentle tones throughout the album, and his songs are at an equally easy-going pace; let’s just say there’s nothing in the way of a Pogues-level 130 beats per minute. Which is fine, because it’s easier to hear his lyrics. Sands has a humanist, poetic philosophical bent, about the meaning we find in seasons of the year  and the comfort we draw from what’s in our plain sight: “But if January thinks we’re sleeping/It couldn’t be much further wrong” (“January Child”); “We’ll follow the field to the blackberry hill/See the black, red and green and the blossoms there still” (“Before Winter Sets In”); “The sun and moon had made their bargain/We’ll give the clouds their chance today” (“Better Times Are Waiting for You”).

He also delights in word play and a good gibe, especially when it’s to make a point about serious matters: “Look here, nuclear, let’s be clear/No nuclear waste is needed here/You say it’s safe, well kind regards/Host it in your own back yards” (“The Old Oak Wood Turns Green Again”); “Could be something that you ate/Could be something that you drank/The leakage of a business scheme/Like 50,000 pigs all going for a pee/Just about a mile upstream” (“Just an Oul’ Thing That’s Going Around”); “Ah ha ho, sure that’s the way it goes/Ah ha ho, do you know? You wouldn’t know” (“Ah Ha Ho,” or “Apathy to Action”). 

Sands has similar gifts as a storyteller, using the imagery and tone associated with tales of the supernatural as a musing about environmental planning and overdevelopment on “Very Nearly.” He turns to non-fiction in relating the life and times of Catherine Schubert (née O’Hare), a County Down native who came to the US at the age of 16 and worked as a maid for a wealthy Springfield, Mass., family, later becoming the first European woman to enter far-distant British Columbia overland from eastern Canada.  

And he knows how to say good-bye: “One More for the Road,” the final track, is a benediction built around simple, universal miracles and blessings: “For the weavers of warmth and the builders of shelter/For the women who carry all life to the door/For the carers of soil, of air and of water/For the love in your heart, there’s time for one more.” Is it sentimental? A bit. But it’s well-earned for the sincerity within the verses.

Sands also is a versatile musician, accompanying himself on guitar but also double bass, mandolin, concertina and percussion. He’s joined by various family members – including Tommy, lending his dulcet tones on “Ah Ha Ho” and “One More for the Road” – and friends, notably Mary Dillon, with an outrageously lovely harmony vocal on the chorus for “Before Winter Sets In.” Anne Harper’s clarinet adds some interesting textures on some of the tracks, whether whimsical (“Some Ould Things That’s Going Around”) or mystical (“Very Nearly”).

In a world of loud, strident voices, Sands – like Tommy and their other family members – makes a very good case for speaking (or rather singing) in lower volumes, with intelligence, sensitivity, and, above all, love. [columsands.com]