Dolores Keane,
Night Owl
(Alula Records, 2000)

The rich, sultry voice of Dolores Keane spellbinds listeners, her music capturing unquestionably Irish roots while keeping the arrangements contemporary enough to appeal to the most modern of ears. Keane never departs from the simple heritage of her Irish background, but brings just enough modern edge to her interpretations of songs to make the music seem fresh and new, regardless of its age. Her earthy, passionate lyrics convey all the depth of Irish loyalty and emotion. The result is pure magic.

Keane's latest release, Night Owl, is highly political, tackling many tough issues. The recording opens with "Dangerous Dance," a Peter O'Hanlon song which questions the way in which we cling to the history of our cultures, refusing to see things in new ways. The chorus is poignant and moving: "Oh, hear the pipes play, / Take up your stance, / And our children will pay, / For our dangerous dance."

John Faulkner contributes a telling song of politicians' "silver tongues and golden voices," who promise much and deliver little, when all is said and done. Pádraigín ní Uallacháin's "Fare Thee Well a Stór" combines love and emigration in a classic Irish theme of love that must part. Another look at emigration is provided by "The Forger's Farewell," telling the tale of an engraver gone bad, who must leave his beloved Ireland because he has been caught as a forger and must flee the land he loves. Keane and John Faulker join in delicious harmony on this a cappella rendition of this traditional tune.

Several other traditional tunes get stunning treatment on this recording. There is the haunting, traditional "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," telling of a failed rebellion of 1798. "The Banks of the Nile" explores Irish conscription for English wars, while "Dunlavin Green" details the tragic ending of an Irish uprising of 1798. On a happier note, love of homeland is beautifully explored in "Ballyroan."

Modern compositions get equal time, featuring familiar traditional themes with finesse and compassion. "Make Me Want to Stay" is a particularly moving emigration song by Tommy Sands, beautifully capturing the heartbreak of leaving those you love in order to move to a new land. From a documentary about street urchins in Sao Paulo, "José" stirs the heart with its sad lyrics and poignant piano accompaniment. "Aileen" opens with an emotional uilleann pipe solo, which then gently interweaves with a John Faulkner poem in memory of his mother, with soft electronic keyboard accompaniment. The resulting melancholy combination is a perfect showcase of Keane's earthy, world-weary vocals.

Keane is joined throughout by a host of excellent musicians, backing her with skill and grace. Guests include John Faulkner on guitar, Fergus Feely on mandola, Eoin O'Riabhaigh on uilleann pipes, Liam Bradley on percussion, Paul Moore on acoustic bass, Vedran Smailovic on cello, Ruth Dillon on backing vocals and Gavin Povey on keyboards and piano. Instrumentations are perfectly chosen to accent the themes and moods of the songs.

The title track, "The Night Owl," closes the album with an ancient, almost Nordic sound, plus a stunning bamboo flute accompaniment by Dessie Wilkinson. The simple melody, accented by the intricate flute riffs, makes a stirring and memorable ending to this moving collection of songs.

[ by Jo Morrison ]

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