Niamh Parsons,
Heart's Desire
(Green Linnet, 2002)

There's always excitement around here when a new Niamh Parsons album arrives. And Heart's Desire, her fifth release, has had the usual effect -- only more so, because of three other people closely involved in the recording: Graham Dunne, Dennis Cahill and Josephine Marsh.

But first of all, the songs and tunes. Listening to Niamh, it's obvious she chooses her material with utmost care. The songs fit her singing exquisitely, unaccompanied or with a complicated backing. She approaches traditional and contemporary material with her own style. The result is always the same: an album in which you are swept along by meaningful songs from a variety of sources which flow naturally from one to the next. Her husky alto singing is soulful and expressive while remaining distinctly Irish, traditional and not theatrical.

She opens the album full of confidence and life with "My Lagan Love," surely one of the hardest songs to sing. The tone is set. She softens with "The Rigs of Rye," a sad love song with a happy ending, whose beauty is enhanced by the harmony singing of Tony Gibbons and Terry Coyne. This duo appear periodically on the album.

Another pair appear throughout the album. On this track, they play gently behind the vocals: Dunne on guitar and Cahill on mandolin and guitar. Not only are they sympathetic to Niamh's work, they also come to the fore on a couple of tracks of their own -- their "Jenny Picking Cockles/Colliers" set of reels moves at a great pace, but shows no sign of being rushed. Two wonderful musicians who should consider a guitar duo album!

Niamh turns to Andy Irvine for the "West Coast of Clare," another difficult song to sing -- a lament that in the wrong hands becomes a dirge. Niamh interprets the sad lyrics with feeling, leaving you feeling as though you've just walked alone in the windy wet.

As part of the process of acquiring material, Niamh travels far and wide, discovering the origins of a song and earlier versions -- much of this information appears in the excellent liner notes: details of the compositions, the performers, notes concerning how she came across the tracks and the lyrics. This not only makes fascinating reading, it also helps the listener understand the songs that much better.

Some people might not find a cappella singing easy to listen to -- "Banks of the Clyde" lasts nearly six minutes, but Niamh's approach turns it from a collection of musical notes and words into a fascinating story.

Accordionist Jo Marsh, who has toured extensively with Niamh, appears on two tracks: the effervescent "A Kiss in the Morning Early" and the uplifting "Tide Full In." On the former, she plays an intricate dancing echo of the melody set on Dunne's bubbling guitar; on the latter, she provides an intriguing chord accompaniment.

More reeds appear in the form of harmonica courtesy of Mick Kinsella on Mark Knopfler's "Done With Bonaparte" lyrics, set to the tune of "Valentia Island." There is a hint of desperation in her singing as she recounts the disillusion of a soldier who has seen the successes of war and now experiences another side as he retreats from Moscow. Kinsella adds a lonely wail of the cold and wind of winter. He also plays on "Syracuse," a poignant anti-war song which shows a brave face while acknowledging the futility and inevitable destruction of everything in war.

There is a tremendous contrast as Niamh sings "New Holland Grove" unaccompanied, followed by a guitar duet by Dunne and Cahill, and then a trio of Parsons, Coyne and Gibbons with "Brokenhearted I'll Wander." In some ways, these tracks sum up the album -- the combination of old and new, peak performances of voice and instruments, all that is good about Irish music today. You can even include the coming together of Irish, English and American performers.

On "Sweet Inniscarra," Niamh laments having traveled and seen the world, only to find her lover has not waited for her return. But perhaps the greatest beauty on this song is the simple strummed guitar accompaniment, which echoes her disappointment and sadness.

The album ends with another anti-war song, "Bramblethorn," written by Sarah Daniels. Once again, Graham Dunne provides a laid back guitar accompaniment, but now there is an extra element in the sound -- that of Niamh's sister, Anne Parsons-Dunne. She has a similar voice to Niamh, and sings in unison behind her, adding emphasis here and there.

Niamh has selected a dozen excellent songs (plus the two instrumental tracks). The arrangements allow her to come to the fore, yet the quality of musicianship by the likes of Dunne, Cahill and the others is also apparent. Cahill produced the album, perfectly capturing the beautiful clear sound of Niamh's voice. This is her best album to date -- and when you listen to her four earlier releases, you'll know that means something special.

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]
Rambles: 7 June 2002

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