Of Glasnots' five original albums, I've always considered Brave Spirits to be the best, rivaled only by 1995's Mayfly Matinee. Of course, it's hard not to appreciate all of this unique band's various efforts. After all, how many groups -- traditional or otherwise -- are built around that arcane and mysterious instrument known as the glass harmonica?
Believed to drive musicians mad with its ghostly, fey sounds, masters of the original medieval glass harmonicas actually suffered from lead poisoning, since the instrument traditionally consisted of leaded crystal glasses filled with varying levels of water, which created a variety of resonant notes when the musician rubbed a finger around the lip of the glass. Mozart wrote music especially for this instrument, and Benjamin Franklin invented a cylindrical version of this fascinating device.
One listen to the buoyant opening notes to "Dry Your Eyes," a folksy original piece that kicks off Brave Spirits, and you'll understand why the glass harmonica attracts so much attention. Terry Hinely coaxes an energetic, complex melody from his glasses, all the more impressive due to the clumsy nature of his instrument. This provides a solid backdrop for brother Donal Hinely to weave his guitar and lyrics in and around for great effect. The traditional "Ragland Road" is also arranged brilliantly, with Terry's mournful harmonica providing just the right touch of melancholy to lines like "On quiet streets/Where old ghosts meet/I see her walking now."
A bit of silliness comes through on Donal's original piece "The Road to Marabee," although the subject matter is well-known to anyone who's listened to any kind of popular music for any length of time -- the traveling stranger who trysts with the willing, beautiful country girl, only to have her father/boyfriend/brother take a knife to the stranger's ... ah ... delicates. Country singer Bobby Bare did a similar take with his "Big Dupree," a hit from two decades back, and "Marabee" really adds nothing to the story, except recasting it with a Renaissance/Medieval flavor and peppering it with colorful euphenisms to describe the bawdy storyline.
Terry takes more of a back seat on "Black is the Color," a traditional piece that's significantly darker in tone and mood. Here the harmonica is content to set the atmosphere, while Donal's dominant guitar and brooding vocals determine the direction. That same approach is used quite nicely on "Spencer the Rover," evoking a forlorn air in the piece, even though the title character is "As happy as those/With thousands of riches."
Without a doubt, the standout piece on Brave Spirits is "Carrickfergus," a masterful blend of sound and voice with a drunken, swaggering attitude that doesn't overwhelm. The pacing is perfect -- slow without dragging. The arrangement is sparse, but the interplay between the glass harmonica and guitar strike a perfect balance. Donal's voice is perfect on riffs like "And I'm drunk today/And I'm seldom sober," and Terry's backing vocals lend just the right touch to propel this to the pinnacle of drinking songs.
Still, as enjoyable as the vocal pieces are, the highlight of any Glasnots album is the harmonica's solo take on an instrumental -- be it traditional or original. In this case, Glasnots treats listeners to two well-known classics in "Lord of the Dance" and "Scarborough Faire." In all honesty, hearing the wavering tones of ethereal sound dance around and breathe new life into these chestnuts will forever ruin you to any other versions of the songs. It makes you wonder "What's the point?" The tunes are so pure, so virginal and perfect, that there's nothing anyone can add that wouldn't take away from their natural beauty.
Clocking in at 73 minutes and 18 tracks, Brave Spirits is one of those rarities in this CD age -- it seems to end all too quickly. Each song leads smoothly into the next, so that the overall effect is one of a series of movements rather than individual pieces. That gives Brave Spirits a coherence that's quite surprising, considering the diversity of material represented here. Even though many of the strongest pieces are included on the Glasnots retrospective Re-Elect the Moon, there's an abundance of material here that didn't make it onto that other disc that's well worth a listen. Even the selections that are included on Re-Elect the Moon, are more readily enjoyed in this more intimate context. Without a doubt, Brave Spirits is not one to miss.