By Sean Smith
Luka Bloom, “Dreams In America” -- This is the kind of album that, frankly, inspires some ambivalence. On the one hand, this is a new release by Luka Bloom we’re talking about here -- easily one of Ireland’s most compelling singer-songwriters and performers of the past few decades. On the other, though, “Dreams In America” is not really a “new” album, as most all of the songs on it have appeared on his previous releases. Yet it’s not exactly a “greatest hits” album either, per se: All are recent re-recordings, 11 of them solo studio efforts and three concert performances. There’s also his never-recorded version of the traditional song “Lord Franklin.”
According to the publicity material, the reinterpretations “suit the modern-day Luka Bloom and the way he now hears [the songs].” So this would seem to raise the question: For whom is this album intended? If it’s Bloom aficionados, will they really discern or appreciate the distinctions (other than the obvious solo-versus-band dynamic) between the older and modern-day versions? If it’s Bloom neophytes, will they be able to get a true feeling for his musical/artistic evolution than via a more conventional retrospective?
Still, to return to the original point, this is Luka Bloom we’re talking about here. And the fact is, there are rewards for both aficionado and neophyte on “Dreams In America.” The new versions of “Dreams” and “Cold Comfort,” for instance, were recorded with significantly less echo, and Bloom comes across as perhaps more accessible, more immediate. The raw emotional narrative in “Bridge of Sorrow,” especially in the shift from verse to chorus, is far more apparent here with Bloom performing it solo. The earlier, band version of “The Acoustic Motorbike,” which included a didgeridoo, complemented the heady mix of poetry and rap elements, but it doesn’t lose much in this incarnation. (Makes one wish for more of the “fun“ side of Bloom; maybe reworkings of “You Couldn‘t Have Come at a Better Time” or “An Irishman in Chinatown”?) “Black Is The Colour” and the aforementioned “Lord Franklin,” meanwhile, show a fuller extent of Bloom’s guitar-playing skills -- he’s not just a strummer, folks.
Two of the live tracks, “I Hear Her, Like Lorelei” and “Love Is a Monsoon,” feature Bloom accompanied by a string section, which if nothing else is at least unobtrusive. Bloom’s enduringly popular rendition of Mike Scott’s “Sunny Sailor Boy” sounds even lovelier with the audience joining in the chorus -- underscoring the bond he forms with his fans at concerts -- but to my mind would have been even better if it were just him and them, and without the three musicians appearing on the track.
If the artistic statement in “Dreams In America” may be difficult to grasp, Bloom goes a long way in making up for any shortfall by doing what he does best: singing with the soul and passion that‘s been with him on all his journeys, whether geographical or spiritual.
Heidi Talbot, “The Last Star” -- Listening to “The Last Star,” it’s hard not to occasionally think of Kate Rusby. Not because Heidi Talbot sounds like Yorkshire’s much-beloved curly-haired songbird -- she doesn’t -- but because the album is produced by none other than Rusby’s ex-husband and long-time collaborator John McCusker (now Talbot’s partner), and includes musicians like guitarist Ian Carr and accordion player Andy Cutting, who have figured prominently in Rusby’s recordings.
But while there may be hints of, say, “Little Lights” or “The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly” here and there, it’s inaccurate to cast Talbot as a Kildare version of Rusby. The fact is, on this, her third album, the former Cherish the Ladies lead singer has hit her stride; her singing is unabashedly confident and self-assured, the choice of material (including traditional and contemporary songs plus a few Talbot/McCusker compositions) is stellar, and the arrangements -- Rusby references notwithstanding -- and musicianship supporting her are both outstanding and well-conceived.
All of this is evident on the highly entertaining, boisterous “Sally Brown,” an Anglo-American sea chantey that here is transformed into something resembling a Salvation Army hymn channeled through a Cajun festival, complete with horn section. Talbot, along with guest vocalist Eddi Reader, brings the right amount of verve and salt to a song, which almost certainly did not originate as something young ladies would sing.
Talbot goes to a completely different place on the emotional spectrum on the very next track, “Bantry Girls,” a lament for the Irishmen gone to fight abroad. The song has been covered by numerous male and female singers, but Talbot nonetheless brings forth its tenderness and tragedy; and her vulnerability and vibrato are eloquently enhanced by Carr, McCusker and double-bassist Ewen Vernal.
Other tracks of note include “Willie Taylor,” a cautionary ballad of love, devotion, and betrayal (with fearsome consequences) featuring cameos by Michael McGoldrick and Phil Cunningham; “Bleecker Street,” a Greenwich Village variant of “Patrick Street” -- about a one-night stand in which it’s the sailor who gets victimized -- that incorporates a riff from “Johnny’s Jig,” which McCusker devotees will recognize from his “Goodnight Ginger” album; and a cover of “At the End of the Day,” an overlooked Sandy Denny masterpiece that still tugs at the heartstrings. Speaking of covers, Talbot does herself proud by bringing in the authors of “Hang Me” (Kris Drever) and “Start It All Over Again” (Karine Polwart) to add harmony vocals to her renditions of their respective works.
Talbot, by the way, is to be the featured vocalist in this year’s “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” production -- one of many future appearances in the US, one would hope and trust.