North sampler: introducing a slow burner of an album
Mary Dillon’s return to the music scene, North, is a slow burner of an album which insinuates itself into the listener’s ear with stealth and grace. After a couple of plays, the combination of her gently assured voice and a set of mainly traditional songs dressed in sparkling new arrangements and beautifully restrained accompaniment works its magic.
Haunting is a wizened old chestnut in the reviewer’s vocabulary. But in Dillon’s case, it’s hard to think of a more apposite word. Strains and phrases from these poignant, intensely romantic tales linger in the air long after the album has played out, gentle as a whisper but always insistent on being heard.
The lack of artifice is compelling. Dillon might have been absent from the studio for more than a decade since her days with Déanta, but so steeped is she in an enviable heritage of Irish traditional singing that there is no sense of her searching for her mark. There are no cobwebs to blow away. She hits the ground running with “When a Man’s in Love” and “Ballyronan Maid” (backing vocals supplied by sister Cara).
While the opening track and the equally carefree “The Banks of the Claudy” are laced with wry humour, the accents are generally dark and complex. Witness the tragedy of “John Condon”, the well-received single that heralded the release of this album, in which Dillon unpicks the tale of an under-age soldier’s fate in the First World War with gut-wrenching simplicity.
Dillon points out that the songs are all linked in some way with the North of Ireland and the musical influence of her homeland on her style and technique is clear. But like all fine singers, she instinctively highlights their universality. She approaches them from a subtle, modern perspective, steering them away from melodrama and the visceral influence of experience to a more intimate, contemplative place.
The devastating tale at the heart of “The Month of January” becomes a monologue of almost chilling rage as the voice of the wronged girl grows in certainty and she grimly forecasts the fading charms of her feckless lover. The traditional lament, “Ard Tí Chuain”, sung a cappella, ends abruptly, leaving the listener almost suspended in its aching beauty.
The sense of trepidation and foreboding that hovers around Dillon’s own composition, “The Boatman”, is one of the North’s strongest themes. Nothing is certain. Everything could be taken at any time. “Edward on Lough Erne Shore”, underscored by Neil Martin’s sympathetic string arrangement and resonant cello playing, epitomises the album’s thoughtful passage along the narrow divide between hope and despair. A quietly magnificent album.