Maighread & Triona Dhomhnaill,
with Donal Lunny,
Idir an Da Sholas
(Between the Two Lights)

(Green Linnet, 2000)

The Ni Dhomhnaill sisters have been recording traditional Irish music for decades. These two women from County Donegal, along with brother Micheal O'Dhomhnaill, performed as part of Scara Brae. Triona released her first solo album in 1975, and again with brother Micheal, joined the Bothy Band around the same time. Although Triona and Micheal have delved into what might be termed "Celtic fusion" in bands such as Relativity and Nightnoise, Idir an Da Sholas shows the Ni Dhomhnaill sisters back to form with traditional Irish songs. Working with Donal Lunny on all tracks and joined by guests such as Micheal O'Dhomhnaill, Sharon Shannon and Maire Breatnach, they've created an album of seemingly gentle, yet evocative, numbers that hearken back to the '70s and the Celtic music revival.

"The Spanish Lady," the opening track, is one of those gentle numbers. It seems almost impossible that there really are keyboards, bouzouki, bodhran, bass, guitar, percussion, fiddle, accordion and synths on this one song, but the CD booklet probably isn't lying. All of those instruments are arranged so neatly that the number still sounds as if it is sparsely accompanied, as if it's a simple, yet graceful, song that focuses more on intertwining the sisters' voices.

Most of the songs feature far less musical accompaniment. Only "Nil se ina la (It's Not the Dawn of Day at All)" and "Tidy Ann" showcase that many. After years of hearing Clannad's take on the former song, it's interesting to contrast it with the Ni Dhomhnaills' version. Clannad uses it to showcase the entire band during live shows; for the Ni Dhomhnaills, it's less a showcase than a fun song to hear trailing out of a countryside pub late at night. "Tidy Ann," the closing track, is an unusual number. Besides various musical instruments, it also credits performers as making animal sounds (cat, ducks, frogs, owls, etc.). A variant of "The Frog's Wedding," this offbeat nonsense song probably required a number of takes and/or edits merely to restrain laughter by music's end.

Not every song is so happy, however. "Pill, Pill a Ruin o (Turn, Turn My Dear)" is based on a true 18th-century story about a Roman Catholic priest who left Catholicism to become a minister with the Church of Ireland. His own mother curses him in this dramatically bitter song. The sisters take on a mystical, almost Clannad-like feel thanks to Triona's keyboards and vocal vibrato on "Foireann an Bhaid (The Best Crew of Men)" to mourn the victims of a shipwreck. (Luckily, it's followed by "Faoitin (Whitin')", a much more upbeat fishermen's song.)

Probably the song that best shows off Triona's keyboards and vocals, however, is her rendition of "The Banks of Claudy." Here's a case in which the instrumentation is meant to be sparse and the attention clearly is focused on the voice. On this song, Triona's voice takes on a feeling of both strength and bitter fragility, as if she is the narrator in desperate search of her true love. "Bruach na Carraige Baine" gives Maighread a turn at solo vocals, against Donal Lunny's keyboards and Laoise Kelly's harp. Until you check out the English lyrics, you may be surprised that this is a bawdy song, with a woman almost eager to be seduced. The beat is so much slower than might be expected of such a song, but it does allow Maighread to show off her vocal twirls.

While there are a number of bands now playing electrified versions of Irish traditional music, the Ni Domhnaills harken back to a time in between the Coors and the Clancy Brothers. It's not that long ago, but so many musicians have come and gone during those years. Maighread and Triona are the originals, and it's good to see they're still out and about.

- Rambles
written by Ellen Rawson
published 15 February 2003

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