An Italian's "Heart's Desire"
Luigi Fazzo reviews Niamh Parson's new album, "Heart's Desire"
Even in the best singers' albums, we are accustomed to have
a few tracks that stand a little behind the other ones; some slightly weaker
songs that the listener would forget more easily as time passes, being left
more impressed by the "top" tracks of the album.
With Niamh Parsons' new release, "Heart's Desire", you find twelve tracks, plus two instrumentals, each one of which could be a hit. In fact, Niamh is too generous: the stuff included in this album could have been the base of two very good recordings, each one well worth the cost of it.
Niamh didn't let pass much time after her two solo albums "Blackbirds And Thrushes" (1999) and "In My Prime" (2000). Probably, having taken courage by the wide acclaim gained by those, she could find the motivation to follow even more sternly and consciously her own vision about singing. Niamh Parsons never acts like a diva. Though she performs at the highest levels, with every evidence she trusts deeply in the power of songs and the importance of the act of singing, as a way to share feelings, emotions and joy among people, either in a concert hall or in a pub's corner. As said, she is a generous singer, and she really trusts in every song she sings, both in its musical value and in the meaning of the story it tells.
In her two previous albums she already had found in Graham Dunne's guitar
the ideal complement for her voice, and a few clever and sympathetic musicians
making well-fitted interventions to enrich the texture of the music; and also
her choice of songs was already brilliant and witty. The new ingredient added
in this album is the sensitive hand of Dennis Cahill as a producer, and he probably
deserves part of the merit for the impression of coherence of the whole work.
Dennis himself plays in the album in his own recognisable style (just listen
on the mandolin chords in the second track).
The booklet inside is rich and complete, with a pleasant and warm look due to the artwork of Gwen Sale. (It's really sad to remember Gwen's tragic departure just after her work had been printed). If I could make a complaint, it's only about the label's choice to put in no greater evidence the role of Graham Dunne in the music. I guess that if Niamh had not found such a musical partner, her results in her recent albums would not have been at this level of excellence. When Niamh sings and Graham plays, they are not a singer and an accompanist: they make music together, and it seems somehow unfair to put the whole emphasis on the role of just one. I should add that Graham's technique and musical understanding are really noticeable, and someone should give him the chance to record a solo album.
The album opens with a solo rendition of "My Lagan Love": a well known song that has been a source of troubles for many singers. A bold choice itself for the singer, but also for the producer and the label, because - you know - the opening track of an album has to be of ready impact for the casual listener, in order to catch immediately his attention; and one would say that opening an album with a difficult, slow, non-rhythmical song in an uncommon modal key, sung by unaccompanied voice, would be in this sense a suicidal choice. But not in this case. Niamh's rendition of the song is deep an dramatic, displaying in full strength the means of her voice: the casual listener will promptly know what this singer is about.
"Rigs of Rye", after it, is like a blue sky opening between the clouds, whose beauty is in debt with Dunne's and Cahill's work on guitar and mandolin. It's a love song with an happy ending; Niamh sings it sweet and easy like a smile, with pleasant backing vocals by Terry Coyne and Tony Gibbons. The third track is an instrumental: "Jenny Picking Cockles / Colliers" are two reels played in guitar duo by Graham Dunne and Dennis Cahill. Graham's picking is as brilliant as clear and flowing; Dennis accompanies in his own style (no heavy guitar strokes or booms) building a regular harmonic and rhythmic texture, with imaginative suggestions that give the result an original mood. They both, indeed, play a good service to he tunes.
"West Coast of Clare" surely was not one of my favourite songs before I heard it sung by Niamh. Now I changed my opinion. In this track you will not listen to heavy pathos or tears: and really there is no need for the singer to add emotional efforts to the lyrics by Andy Irvine. The singer's voice is almost bare, or chilled, burdened with loss - nevertheless, the melodic strength of the song is in full evidence. Again Gibbons and Coyne sing in harmony (Coyne plays the low whistle too), and Dunne is as gentle as he should.
"Banks of the Clyde" is a story about the common theme of the disguised man who tries his girl's fidelity, and, having been reassured, finally reveals himself. (I don't know any song in which a woman tries the same game with her man: perhaps the result would be different? And I sometime suspect that all these ladies who, face to face, cannot recognise their disguised fiancée are simply cheating, being well conscious of what is really happening and turning the situation towards their own advantage). Anyhow, the dialogue among the two is very formal and polite, and Niamh sings the story consequently, without emphasis and in a pleasant, conversational tone. I must add that at the end of the story something strange happens: just after having revealed his identity, and before giving his sweetheart the final prize of marriage, the man gives her an extra-bonus of a fifty guineas token.
After the good girl, here is the bad girl, who in "A Kiss in the Morning Early" has an affair with a shoemaker; and she cruelly disappoints her poor father, who was hoping that his daughter was being engaged with a prince, or a king, or at least someone with a good bunch of money. (No destiny is too high for a good girl in a father's opinion, especially if it could bring riches to the whole family). It's a lively and humorous song, quite outspoken, performed with spirit by Niamh and Graham, with Josephine Marsh at the accordion. They all seem to show an open sympathy for the bad girl.
"Done with Bonaparte" will be specially greeted by those who were fascinated by Niamh's version of Tom Waits' "The Briar and the Rose" in one of her earlier albums with the Loose Connections ("Loosen Up", 1997). Here is another song written by a rock legend, Mark Knopfler. Jerry O'Reilly from the Goilìn Singers Club (an institution that I really would like to visit one day) had the blessed idea to sing Knopfler's lyrics upon the melody of the pipe tune "Valentia Island". The result is astonishing: it adds a new great song to the file of the well known Napoleonic songs, with an extra and modern taste due to the beauty of the lyrics written by Knopfler. A French soldier, struggling and freezing in the snows of the Russian retreat, talks about the "little corporal", and vows that never more the hearts of people would be captivate with dreams of greatness, that bring nothing but pain and disgrace to common people. (A vow, unfortunately, poorly fulfilled in the later history).
"New Holland Grove" could be one of many beautiful and sad emigration songs: in Niamh's rendition it talks to us very vividly about the reflections of a wise young man who experiences regret an grief, but no desperation. Only by the sleeve notes I discovered that this is not an old traditional song, but a modern composition by Sean Mone. The core of the story could be resumed, indeed, in its words "I'd rather stay than go": a bit too obvious, one would say, but it tells the problem in its bare simplicity. And since one has to go, let him at least carry with himself, for company, pleasant and loving memories.
Another instrumental follows, joyously performed by Dunne and Cahill in guitar duo: "The Brown Bull of Chill na Mòna / The Tipperary Temptress", two jigs both composed by Dunne himself. The first one reminds to me, quite strangely, of an Italian tarantella. The second sounds more like a bagpipe tune in the first part, but carries unusual features in the second, by changing the accents and cutting of one bar. (Beware, you confident dancers, if you started moving too easily at the beginning of the track, you could be bound to stumble down on the floor towards the end of it.)
"Brokenhearted I'll Wander" brings us back to tradition, with another well known ballad (The Bonny Light Horseman) sung by solo voice, with effective voices in harmony added by Coyne and Gibbons in the chorus. The song, although its theme is by no means merry, is sung boldly and openly, making a tribute to the pleasure of singing. After that, "Letter to Syracuse" (written by Bill Caddick, Niamh heard it sung by Christy Moore) gives a sudden change of musical mood. It's indeed another song against the miseries of war, but this time it develops along an easy melancholic waltzing melody, sung by Niamh with abandon, the result sounding to me quite American in its flavour. Noticeable too is the passionate and dynamic harmonica played here by Mick Kinsella.
"Tide Full In" (a beautiful title itself) has the kind of melody that fits easily Niamh's voice. The song was written by Francis A. Fahy, and the story it tells arose some doubts in me. A woman, left alone by her man gone away in search of fortune, calls herself foolish for having let him go; and yet she recalls in a merry tone the pleasures they shared when they were together, feeling sure that the same pleasant times will come again. But indeed she has no real assurance about her lover coming back, apart from a letter where he simply promises that he will return when he will have found the fortune he has gone for: something, it seems, not to be taken for granted. So, what? Maybe the hope itself stays in the simple strength of living and dreaming. Niamh eases warm and harmoniously with no apparent effort in the intricate melody of the tune, enriched again by accordionist Josephine Marsh.
And then a most desperate song comes: "Sweet Iniscarra". A man long exiled, having experienced the hardships, adventures and riches of the wide world around, still keeps in his heart the tender love for his homeland and the girl he left there. When he finally returns, he finds nothing but an abandoned house, the grave of his old love and all his loved ones long dead: so that the only aim left for the wanderer is to wait until he will be reunited to them all in death. The story is terribly sad, and the best thing I can say is that Niamh's rendition, with Graham meditative and somehow gloomy guitar, makes us drink this bitter goblet to the last drop.
The album ends with a gentle, moving, nearly whispered "Bramblethorn" - a beautiful song written by Sarah Daniels - where Niamh is joined by her sister Anne Parsons-Dunne. If, with a gun pointed towards me, I had to choose a favourite track in the album, probably it would be this one (but I would immediately beg for another choice for Done With Bonaparte). The simple brief guitar introduction is evocative. The two sister sing together in full sensitiveness, bringing in the track all the melancholy and sad reflections of the song.
So the album ends perfectly as it began. You need some time of silence after it, cuddling in your mind the feeling and the soft echoes planted by the song; a bit of silence, before you start listening to the whole album again.
Homepage of the artist: www.niamhparsons.com
Contact to artist: firstname.lastname@example.org
Homepage of the label: www.greenlinnet.com
Watch out for the live review of Folk at Fram, featuring Niamh Parsons.
Photo Credit: Photos at "Folk at Fram 2002", by Michael Moll
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