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Album review – Lisa Cuthbert: Paramour

9 Feb

Party’s Over: edgy and constantly shifting

Paramour: an album with a howling sweep that gives vent to a universal agony

Paramour: an album with a howling sweep that gives vent to a universal agony

The ghastly, often brutal regime of the Magdalene Laundries – institutions to which Ireland’s ‘fallen’ women were consigned for more than 200 years, the last closing its doors unbelievably recently in 1996 – has understandably provided a rich, if grim, seam of inspiration for artists, writers and musicians.

Dublin-born singer/songwriter Lisa Cuthbert is the latest to give a voice of sorts to the thousands of unfortunate unmarried mothers, prostitutes and mentally ill women who suffered humiliation, virtual imprisonment, abuse and utter despair in these institutions that masqueraded as philanthropic houses of rehabilitation.

Her concept album – Paramour – is a dark journey through two centuries of almost gothic wretchedness, the historical context in which she places her characters being also studded with references to her own experiences at a convent school. The result is an angry, profoundly compassionate exploration of the lives led by these women, their precarious emotional resilience and survival, the desolation of their faith, and the viciousness of the nuns who ran the ‘laundries’.

There is a howling sweep to the album, which peaks regularly in rampaging swirls of rage as Cuthbert gives vent to the universal agony that it is too late to restore justice for these women. The damage runs deep, a cultural wound that is barely healed. From the opening track “Destitute”, the tone is set.

Occasionally its relentlessness borders on the excessive – but perhaps that is part of Cuthbert’s purpose: the listener’s submission to the cascade of intense rhythms, Cuthbert’s compelling, soaring vocals and chants, and the false peace promised by an insistent cello, is a metaphor for the helplessness of the fictional protagonists who populate Paramour.

There are also moments of real beauty – the heart-breaking “Gartan Mother’s Lullaby”, with its tinkling piano, children’s voices and the distant sound of artillery fire , the richness of “The Balancing Act”, the absorbing ballad “The Sooner You Know”, and even “Madame’s Secret Pain”, which suggests that things were not so black and white for the overseers of these institutions.

Is there absolution in the end? Not exactly. The edgy, shifting quality of the closing track, “Party’s Over”, draws a line of sorts, but the overwhelming weight of what’s gone before refuses to die away entirely. Paramour is an imposing and demanding piece of work – and a fitting tribute to generations of women whose lives were blighted beyond reason.

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Album review – North: Mary Dillon

30 Jan

North sampler: introducing a slow burner of an album

North: Mary Dillon's quietly magnificent return

North: Mary Dillon’s quietly magnificent return

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.

Single review – Mary Dillon: John Condon

5 Nov

John Condon: Mary Dillon’s haunting vocal signals a welcome return after 15 years away from the music scene

Ulster singer Mary Dillon has returned after a 15-year break from the music scene with “John Condon“, the tale of a 14-year-old boy lost on the front in the Great War. Stark and pure, with exquisite backing, the single is released in time for Remembrance Day and heralds a new album, North, which will arrive in February. Poignant and cinematic in its imagery, the song exerts a gentle but irresistible pull thanks to Dillon’s eloquent reading of lyrics that find universal relevance in the tragedy of one young, wasted life. If the rest of North lives up to this, Dillon’s re-emergence as a solo artist will be something to celebrate.

Album Review – Christine Tobin: Sailing to Byzantium

29 Jul

So Far Away: not Yeats but Carole King, from Christine Tobin’s previous album Tapestry Unravelled

Sailing to Byzantium: Christine Tobin rescues Yeats from memories of academic overload

The rich source material for Christine Tobin’s latest album positively encourages metaphor, so here goes. Sailing to Byzantium is a vibrant, irresistible lake. There’s nothing to be gained from standing suspiciously on its shore.  Take a deep breath, plunge in, and let the water draw you down into a musical world of burnished colours, intriguing shades, spine-chilling dangers and soothing sub-aquatic glades.

Tobin’s audacity in setting 13 of W. B. Yeats’s poems to fluid and spacious jazz arrangements pays off on every level.  The poet’s characteristic themes of memory, time and place, unattainable love, the artist’s lot, and mythology shine through, heightened but never unnecessarily embellished by some brilliant ensemble playing.

Tobin isn’t the first composer to set Yeats to music. Herbert Hughes, for example, wrote a rollicking tune for “Down by the Sally Gardens”, most recently recorded by Clare Teal for her album, Hey Ho. But Sailing to Byzantium is on a much more ambitious scale. And how Tobin pulls it off.

It would be invidious to single out any band member; plaudits to Liam Noble (piano), Phil Robson (guitar), Gareth Lockrane (flute), Kate Shortt (cello) and Dave Whitford (double bass). With their support, Tobin’s warm timbre wraps itself around the shimmering imagery of Yeats’s verse, taking it into a new and very different space while staying true to the original work.

Like Tobin, I studied Yeats at school, and was so absorbed by the texture and subjects of his poetry that I later seized the opportunity to immerse myself in it at university. Analytical overload was inevitable and it’s been many years since I revisited the glories of poems such as “Long-legged Fly” and “The Wild Swans at Coole”. Tobin’s inspired handling of the material has sent me scurrying to the bookshelf and reaching out for a familiar, yellowing volume as if it was an old friend.

From the sparkling Joni Mitchell-ish  guitar intro to the opening track, “When You are Old” to the elegiac tones of actor Gabriel Byrne (who taught at Tobin at school in Dublin) reading “The White Birds” to the backdrop of rising waves and Tobin’s wordless, keening chant, Sailing to Byzantium commands attention. The production is fresh and crisp.

There is turbulent beauty, not least in the cacophonous climax to “The Second Coming”. Characters spring to life, greatly assisted by the sparkling arrangements. “The Song of Wondering Aengus” and “The Fisherman” – that paean to a simple, idealised reader – bristle with energy. Some of the songs are haunted and haunting in equal measure:  ghosts gather and whisper as “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markievicz” conjures a room populated by lost friends, to exquisitely poignant effect, building to the sinister revelation of knowledge that’s come too late. An artistic triumph, brimming with integrity.