Niamh Parsons,
with Graham Dunne,
The Old Simplicity
(Green Linnet, 2005)

The decision to open this album with David Olney's "1917 (The French Prostitute)" is simply inexplicable. It's just about enough to sour one on what follows, which is a bunch of better songs. Olney's ballad is grim and depressing, and not in a good way, and it's set to a barely serviceable melody which soon grates. (I didn't like it any better when Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt recorded it on their Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions.) Why isn't the second tune, the lilting and accessible "Irish Stranger," the first?

On The Old Simplicity, the Dublin-based Niamh Parsons -- the first name is pronounced "Neeve" -- retreats from the nearly all-trad repertoire of her recent albums, though a few older songs are represented. Besides the above-mentioned "Stranger," they include the consistently undislikable "Ye Rambling Boys of Pleasure" (sung unaccompanied) and, just as appealingly, a "Nancy Whiskey" variant she calls "Long Cookstown." The arrangements this time around are as basic as basic gets, mostly Graham Dunne's guitar augmented here and there by accordion, bouzouki and mandolin (John Williams the first, producer Dennis Cahill the latter two).

The mood, alas, is overwhelmingly downbeat, as one realizes upon discerning that Simplicity -- its homey title aside -- leans heavily in the direction of the dark side: war, death, alcoholism, poverty, disease. It doesn't help that Parsons is a superior singer and first-rate interpreter, since in this context that means if the subject is a gloomy one -- and it usually is -- you really feel it. Scottish folksinger-writer Alistair Hulett's "Blue Murder" and "He Fades Away" -- the man has a thing for fatal-illness ballads, I gather -- are two egregious examples. His "No Half Measures: The Song of the Drinking Man's Wife" is no stroll through the rose garden, either. These are, let us be clear, well-crafted and vividly imagined songs, but they are also hugely demanding ones.

Of the originals my favorite is the pointed fable "The Peddler," written by Canadian composer Maria Dunn and delivered without accompaniment:

Came a peddler to my door
Says he's got a sale on war
I said what have you come here for
Do you think that I forgot?

More cheerfully, Parsons tackles Linda Thompson's "No Telling," which I am certain Thompson meant as a literal fairytale, if in a modern urban setting. It's a splendid song with a grandly florid melody and an out-of-the-expected narrative. Parsons's interpretation, however, contributes nothing strikingly fresh to it.

Overall, this is a good album -- Parsons, a pro, records no other -- and fans (in whose ranks I number) will want it in their collection. I doubt, however, that any will judge it among her most memorable. In general, I confess, I prefer her readings of traditional Irish material. Among the more recently composed numbers here, moreover, nothing matches her stellar treatment of Andy Irvine's glorious "The West Coast of Clare" (on Heart's Desire, Green Linnet, 2002).

by Jerome Clark
27 January 2007

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