The Boys of the Lough

The West of Ireland

Lough Records 1999

Something of a curate's egg, this: a reminder of the hallmarks of the group's presentation of material, some curious wanderings, incidental felicities in the playing, a bit of hype …an ultimate, slightly dissatisfied feeling.

I'd say, straight away, that the most successful tracks in all senses, aesthetic and commercial, are those which stick to the tried and tested because when the raw material is so good it doesn't need dressing up and comes over as vigorous, handily structured music, meaningful in its implications of communityCover picture – which the Boys are well able to emphasise to advantage – and hugely enjoyable.

This is apparent in the two tracks that open the CD where there is fresh-sounding, compact and appropriately weighted ensemble playing.  In the first, we straightaway encounter Cathal McConnell's singing in a characteristically fluid mode.  The virtues of apparent simplicity in approach to the song, The West of Ireland, belie gradations of what I can only describe as the way in which he caresses words.  Possibly the pitch cracks a trifle – but that would be part and parcel of that edge of strain that we also find in Len Graham's singing – and, maybe, the pace of the song is a fraction fast … but McConnell not only gets away with it because the underlying grasp of text and tune are so natural to him (and the sound of his voice so mellifluous): he lifts the words.  A comparison with a previous recording with the Boys(1976), wholly unaccompanied, reveals a slower pace there which, to my mind, does allow him to shape the song in a more distinct manner; but there's not much in it. 

Throughout this CD, in fact, his voice soars to draw from us a fresh look at the chosen songs and, in one case, kind of rescues the group.

The guitar accompaniment here (from Malcolm Stitt) – noisy neck sounds … but we can take it – is, in general, not intrusive; though I'd have wished for a hint of the melodic line of the tune in its introduction.  What we get instead is a progression of the chordal accompaniment and this device is used on more than one occasion.  Is it meant to intrigue us?  The entry of the fiddles is restrained and they don't try to do too much against McConnell so that the balance of voice and instrument is held.  It's an economical presentation.

In the second track there is something of the same approach beginning with a bold flute and fiddle sound and a piano accompaniment which, for my money, is very attractive – not necessarily percussive so much as providing a subtle infil, ruminative almost, following the contours of the tune, but with a judicious harmonic emphasis here and there.  If you're going to have a piano then let it be like this … I'm irresistibly reminded of Charlie Lennon … but recognise that this isn't music as you would hear it in the average session.  Also: if you get the matching wrong it sounds much worse than if you were merely plonking away as the early accompanists to Messrs. Coleman and Killoran often did.  You stand the risk of being clever-clever and you take attention away from the movement of the tune.  Gary O'Briain never falls into that trap.

What impresses me further about this track is the distribution of weight.  The sound is not too heavy and there is a dramatic drop in level when the single fiddle, played by Kathryn Tickell, takes over so that the tune emerges in pristine measure.  The guitar (I must be going soft) is, rhythmically and percussively, nicely judged – not always so as the CD progresses.  I can even take the sprinkling of thirds - almost a trademark of Aly and the Boysfrom a long while back - in the two-fiddle playing (Aly Bain and Kathryn Tickell) which, elsewhere, sound naοve.

What is somewhat puzzling is that the first tune here, Stell'a Trip to Kamloops, "a joyful fiddle march composed by Patricia Chafe from Glace Bay, Cape Breton Island'", and the second, Willie Taylor's Farewell to the Dean, listed here as a strathspey with "a distinct Northumberland touch", are played in exactly the same rhythm.  Marches, we know, can take many forms … but you could (and they did) fool me into thinking about both tunes as being in the same measure: my problem, I daresay (I mean: someone's going to say "That's exactly the point"), except that a mark of distinction may have been fuzzed.

The change to a different rhythm, that of reels (Willie Taylor again: Tich's Reel – you know the history here – and a new Brunswick contribution, Fred's Tune), suddenly poses a different question and I'm not sure if that change is really necessary.  The first two tunes and the reels could easily exist as two different tracks without loss of impact.  As the reels progress, you tend to lose cognisance of the march and the strathspey … their legacy is dissipated.  I'm aware that this is very much a blue-in-the-face argument and that changes of this sort have always been a feature of the Boys' playing and that you can hear the same sort of thing on many other recordings.  I simply come back to the point that, whatever the merits, you have irrevocably changed the nature of the music and the immediate consequence is that you'd better be good to carry this off and the long-term effect that you are first setting up the concert turn as the norm and then losing the clarity of musical form.  It's a commercial problem, perhaps.

The Boys are certainly good here, most especially in the tight ensemble of flute and fiddle.  Bain and McConnell provide a consistently easy sound, so thoroughly at home they appear to be.  That is something which, time and again, gives this CD a touchstone.  I think that in these first two tracks the best of the CD can be found: a cleanliness of line untrammelled by too much irrelevant detail.

Now this is immediately altered when Breandan Begley arrives.  The mode of attack is more 'wriggly' in ornament especially and he uses the box in terms for dynamics in ways which Bain and McConnell do not with fiddle and flute.  I should emphasis that it's not a question of 'right' or 'wrong' nor of poor playing – the opposite, in fact.  It's actually great to hear two well-known but, maybe, neglected tunes, The Steamboat and The Sheffield Hornpipe, played with such energy and enthusiasm.  Again, too, the piano is relatively quiet and the guitar blends well with it so that they become an agent in forming a whole group sound with a clear ring contributed especially to the second tune.  The last chord, though, is sentimental.  And don't let the change of emphasis in style slip form the memory.

The next track, the song The Maid with the Bonny Brown Hair, begins by employing two whistles, one in 'harmony', but there is a distinct loss of impact here and the introduction of the cello is, as it were, clumsy.  There is too much of a vertical gap between the melodic line and the rather exposed bass line.  There's also a viola.  Experimental?  I think that it ends up as a gimmick: the sleeve has it that cello and viola "together seem almost to be listening to the woeful tale of young love lost and offering mature commiseration".  That's nonsense.  The song is hardly woeful.  Its characteristic broadside slant offers scant depth of feeling.  It remains very pleasant diversion, even understated, and McConnell sings it easily; but hardly has the impact of a Donal Og.  Another comparison, this time with McConnell's rendering on a Boys album of 1973, reveals there a more relaxed approach still, without the constraints of regular rhythm but with Bain following the melodic line (an un-necessary addition in my view anyway).  McConnell just about rescues this track here with his marvellously flowing voice; but, even so, look out how he seems to rush the line 'I spied a ship'.  This follows a similar attempt in the earlier recording but the slight cranking up of the pace here is no help.  A second particular effect, in the final stanza, where McConnell goes exceptionally high, again echoes the earlier recording … works.  It's at this point that I began to wish that he'd sing at least one song unaccompanied and, as it were, un-constrained.  I yield to no-one in my admiration of his capabilities in that sphere.

Then Michael O'Brien and his pipes offer what is a surprising other change, jigs this time, by the way: The Green Linnet, John Ward's and Mama's Pet.  You can, in this instance, be carried away by the musicality of his playing but you've begun to lose the thread as offered in the first two tracks.  There's no 'fault' attached to this but listen to how much air McConnell now has to put into the flute-playing to be able to cope.  The ensemble is, inevitably, impeccable when Bain, for instance, joins in on the second tune.  When the third tune is encountered we're up to the modern sound: a mass well distributed, plucked instruments, mandoline, mandocello and bouzouki, demonstrating viability in various combinations – that is, the track works except, perhaps, curiously, the final note – where, because the overall concept is, seemingly, so well thought-out it comes as a shock to hear an everyday ending, redolent of thousands of sets of tunes in sessions, which, harmonically, is out of synch.  Remember: this is a commercial CD and the exactness has already been established – I grant that the point may be thought a little arcane and even, at this point, trivial.

The next track descends, firstly, to chamber music, vibrato and all – which I believe to be inappropriate, a distraction from the flow of tunes.  The nearest reference that I could think of would go as far back as, say, the Maguire brothers of Buttons and Bows and Carousel (only as far as 1984, then, though Tony Hall did offer a Henry Reed tune - Peeler Creek it was named - way back further); this kind of waltz tune (Sharon Eubank's Waltz) has become popular.  Very southern American and, frankly, I hope that its heyday passes.  Waltz.  Schmaltz.  In the end, is the tune worth all the effort?  OK.  You can argue that it's representative of relaxed joiny-in pieces, no worse than your average country-and-western interlude at an Irish dance … and isn't meant to make demands.  More to the point: haven't we changed direction yet again?  The CD, perhaps, is beginning to lose shape.

So that, next up, the absolutely brilliant concept of flat pipes used for a song air, My Bonny Blue Eyed Lassie, that gains unexpected depth and poignancy, a tour de force as ever was, is yet a one-off in any overall thought.  There are no gimmicks in Michael O'Brien's playing here.  Relish, for instance, the use of regulators, held in check, and the loneliness in the tune.  I'd have liked it left alone, stark and self-contained.  Here, O'Brien chooses to hit a reel and, together with the flute, presents exact ensemble which is followed through with into a second reel though there's a certain lack of edge in the sound which is, I think, because of the pitch of the pipes and not the playing itself.

By the way, if you can, get to hear Elizabeth Cronin's rendering of My Bonny Blue Eyed Lassie or that of Sinead Slattery (Caher as was); and compare both the sentiments and the expression with that of the Maid with the Bonny Brown Hair.  I reckon that this song is revealed more favourably in intensity and elegance.

Once again - I was going to say - we've come a long way from those opening tracks.

Too far in the next track, The Rocks of Bawn.  Try as I have, I can't like this.  The guitar's introduction is, rhythmically, wrong for the tune and the rhythm throughout cliched (and the guitar is faintly out-of-tune).  There is a change, too, from minor in the introduction to major when the voice enters which becomes gimmicky again.  Once more, too, the bass line is isolated.  The song is somewhat regularised when, perhaps, we could have done with a little bit more leisure in the singing.  The musical interludes sound like a crude Playford imitation: what are they doing here, especially with this song?  The track, in the end, sounds amateur (for an absolute contrast in approach and execution, you might want to listen to Joe Heaney's 1963 Topic version).

The next track piles it on in terms of change.  Here is Kathryn Tickell playing small-pipes (Small Coals and Little Money) and you can't complain about such characteristic Northumberland virtuoso piping – even with accidentals which allow a slipping through the progress of the tune.  It's brilliant; it's fun; I'm not sure, though, what it's doing here unless as contrast … willing to be convinced.  Yet I don't believe accompaniment of any sort to be strictly necessary.  Indeed, the concertina is almost lost.  The Lisheen Reel fits well enough into this before a return to the first-named tune.  Yet, in the end, it's in a different style and, as such, slightly compromises the whole effect of the CD.

It all begins to get unsettling.  Maybe, of course, this is the intention but the risk is that with so many changes in style and personality the ear loses comprehension.  So again, then, Begley, with the Irish-language song, Beauty Deas an Oileain, sounds just a little distant from any collective prospect.  The air itself is a superb one and Begley's a well-worked contribution, though the voice – possibly - lacks power against the instruments … a fraction too sweet, maybe?  At least, in his singing, he doesn't wait for a chord before hitting his own note: it is left to the accompanying musicians, including himself on the box, to 'chase' him – a very difficult task when singing is as free as it is here.  In fact, I'm not sure if the fiddle succeeds.  It is a mite un-necessary anyway and underlines that sweetness in Breandan's voice.  Altogether we edge towards sentimentality in sound.  I must say, though, that the final perspective with octave playing on the box brings a shiver to the spine.

I can't think what the Boys were doing after this with three Irish reels, The Old Torn Petticoat (a 'slow reel'), The Humours of Ballinahinch and The Longford Reel.  This part of the egg is severely … well … addled.  There is some excellent ensemble (yet again) – whistle and pipes, for instance, and the whistle, especially, in the third tune, if you can separate their sound, are outstanding – but the constant sawing of the cello is way out of kilter.  Innovation becomes a little ridiculous and, mind, this is a CD which, by the nature of it as an artefact, may be said to imply repeated playing.  This track, for me, represents hype and it does nothing to add to the credibility of the Boys - all of which may sound hard on the cellist, Ron Shaw; but the whole thing is so irrelevant to anything that has gone before.  I believe this to be a severe misjudgement.

Once again, McConnell to the rescue – or … well, it's a brave or an intensely foolish choice of song - Dark is the colour - where we're also left questioning the presence of the pipes at all whilst admiring their contribution in lifting the tune: but it is a brief interlude; and, then, another change of style …

Begley at his best, I'd have thought, thoroughly at home with these polkas, Glin Cottage 1 and 2 and Julia's (God rest her): intense, energetic, enjoyable.  It was a good stroke, too, to stick to two instruments rather than indulge in the whole group sound, one of the plus points throughout the CD.  And yet … and yet.  Bain's American-style jigger-jigger-jigger isn't right; nor is the last soft chord which kills the essence of some exciting dancing music.

So: we have here a compendium of good - nay, excellent - playing let down by what looks like indifferent planning.  Maybe there are just too many guests involved.  There is a lack of an identifiable Boys sound and the experiments don't, I think, make up for that.  I'd draw your attention here to the notes where, it is declared:

"we draw inspiration and strength, and the benefit of different viewpoints, from a broad base in not just one, but several, of the core musical traditions now styled 'Celtic' ..."
See what I mean?  I'm not convinced by this dilution.  Now think about this bit:
"This music which means so much to us does not exist in a vacuum, adrift in the past.  It is happening now as never before – an active process of giving and receiving in which we, as musicians, have been involved on an international basis for most of our lives."
and this :
"The first of the full time professional Celtic bands to arise on the international scene …They have completed over fifty tours of the USA …"
Selective quotes, yes: but now we have the raison d'etre, and Americans, poor souls, need this kind of patronising bilge.  What, precisely, at the innovative end, do the Boys contribute to tradition(s) on this CD which isn't outweighed by what already exists?  What's this 'vacuum' anyway?  I'm reminded of some no-nonsense Dublin friends: "Would y'ever cop on to yerselves?"

Of course, Luddites lost out too; but I so much admire the Boys when they're up and running as in the first two tracks here (and, at moments, elsewhere on the CD).  The music, in this mode, is never stale because there are such thunderingly fine tunes available needing just that touch of individuality for their brightness and vibrancy or their less obvious plangency to be evoked; and the Boys can apply such touches with supreme skill so that it seems, at best, unconscious and takes the breath away.  Maybe this is to ask for something else entirely.  After over twenty-five years' listening to them, I can't help it.  My main point, made regretfully, is that the changes as exemplified here don't always, I feel, amount to much.

You'll have to make up your own minds, of course; but as far as the melodic vigour at its peak here and the individual quality of the guests' playing is concerned, do as the sleeve asks: 'Enjoy'.

Roly Brown - 5.11.99

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