Nuala Kennedy,
Noble Stranger
(Compass, 2012)

When I think of Nuala Kennedy, I tend to think of her as a flute player first and foremost.

It's a reasonable manner of thinking, since Kennedy consistently demonstrates a deft hand with the flute -- she is easily one of the top performers in the Celtic world, and listening to her go to work is a sublime experience.

But Noble Stranger, Kennedy's latest CD, reminds me that this Irish-born Scottish resident has one of the loveliest voices you're likely to encounter. It's almost criminal to have so much talent. But it's a good kind of crime.

Noble Stranger is as much a pop album as it is Celtic. Sure, her Irish roots and Scottish influences are on full display, particularly in the traditional tracks included here, but Kennedy infuses her music with a cheerful, contemporary "neo-folk" sound that makes it accessible to a broad range of listeners. She boldly makes the tradition her own.

For all her sweet and airy vocals, the album can be surprisingly dark at times. For every "Gabriel Sings," the album's delightful first track, or the lovely and loving "Lonely City," there's a "Lord Duneagle," in which our heroine dies of loneliness and her true love follows from heartbreak. "The Banks of the Roses," which I swear I heard several times thinking it charming and romantic, is actually a murder ballad most foul -- and the slayer seems to get away with it, too! (For the record, I've known the latter song for years, but never with this particular lyric set; in my experience, it usually ends quite happily for the couple involved!)

I wish I knew the backstory to "Napoleon's Dream," which is probably my favorite track on the album; unfortunately, the notes that accompanied the review copy don't explain its origins. It makes a hero of the French tyrant Bonaparte ... although I have read suggestions that Napoleon was a hero to the Irish, who hoped he would free them from British sovereignty.

The flute is also on display here, and listeners will enjoy several instrumental tracks. "Asturias" -- there's a part one and two -- is easily my favorite non-vocal selection.

Kennedy recorded this album over a week in Scotland with percussionist Donald Hay, 10-string mandolinist Iain Macleod, guitarist Mike Bryan and guest vocalist AJ Roach. The group of musicians has a tight, well-practiced sound that is pleasing start to finish; the percussion in particular adds a fresh, appealing sound to underscore Kennedy's voice.

[ visit the artist's website ]

music review by
Tom Knapp

18 August 2012

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