New Yorker Susan McKeown has been gradually establishing a reputation as a classy and innovative interpreter of Irish traditional song for some time, without ever gaining the breakthrough she deserves. On first appearances, Blackthorn appears to be a rather low key release in her oeuvre, the to-the-point subtitle Irish Love Songs suggesting a straight-up approach. True, nothing on here matches the sheer verve of matching 'Eggs in Her Basket' to a mariachi band or accompanying 'Lowlands' with a Chinese erhu. The emphasis is on the songs, with fairly minimal accompaniment. A mixture of Irish and English language traditionals, the highlights tend to be the ballads, inevitably tragic tales of unfulfilled love that McKeown installs with an anguished beauty. Not always as successful, but a necessary change of tempo are the jauntier numbers like 'Dó ín Dú' and 'Bean Pháidín,' which have a certain charm but can grate in the wrong mood. A couple more mid-paced songs like 'A Maid Going to Comber' may have made for greater variety.
It is only upon further listening that this understated release reveals its typically McKeownian quirkiness. Recording across the globe, in New York City, Dublin, Asturias and the Basque Country, she is joined by a varied selection of musicians quietly adding their own little touches. After a recognisably Irish start, the likes of Asturian folk hero Xuacu Amieva and Kepa Junkera associates Igor Oxtoa and Harkaitz Martinez appear, playing the trompa (a horn), the chiming txalaparta (a vaguely glockenspiel-like instrument) and the rabel (a low-toned violin of sorts, gravely effective on 'AnRaibh Tú ag an gCarraig?'). The final track, an English language variation of the title track 'An Droighneán Donn'('The Blackthorn Tree') is full-on Americana with banjo, harmonium and harmonica. The real discovery for me though is harpist Edmar Castenada, whose inventive, jazzy playing, hitting bass notes I never even knew existing, has given me a whole new respect for the instrument. More than once I had to check the sleeve notes to confirm it wasn't actually a kora being played!
In many ways, McKeown herself has a rather normal voice, with neither the piercing purity of, say, Mary Black, nor a strong, earthy accent. However, it does have a supple maturity that seizes control of the songs, simply and evocatively wringing the emotion without over-dramatizing them.
Finally, a word should be said for the packaging. A lovely full colour cardboard case boasts some fine photography, and the booklet juxtaposes personal song notes from McKeown with more scholarly pieces by Tom Monnelly. All of the Irish language songs feature English translations, which adds real depth to the recordings and prove that Irish folk songs are just as nonsensical - and moving - as their English counterparts!
Lovingly put together, it's a classy treatment for an excellent album that, though it may not shout it from the rooftops, will beguile and charm a willing listener into appreciating what a first-rate talent Susan McKeown is.* * *
Look out for our Green Man Reviews of McKeown's Bushes and Briars and Lowlands albums (the latter featuring the erhu accompanied title track), as well as the official Web site.