The Chieftains — Voice of Ages
When it comes to Ireland’s national treasures, The Chieftains have to rank right up there with the Blarney Stone and the Guinness brewery in Dublin. There’s nothing wrong with the contemporary acts that have blended Irish music with rock (Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys) or New Age easy listening (Enya) – for the most part, at least (Celtic Thunder, looking at you). For 50 years now, though, Paddy Moloney and his group of ace musicians have preserved the ancient tradition of traditional Irish music and kept it going strong. There is a definite parallel that can be drawn to the more tradition-based acts in the U.S. and their attempts to keep the “country” in country music.
The Chieftains have long shown a fondness for collaboration, working with everyone from Van Morrison and Nanci Griffith to the Rolling Stones (check out the Stones doing “Rocky Road to Dublin” some time). They’re no strangers to the country music world, having recorded three albums with some of Nashville’s best, including Don Williams, Willie Nelson and Martina McBride. For this new album, the special guests mostly come from the folk/Americana world. That would normally be a cause for concern, as some Chieftains collaborators tend to get a little too solemn with their take on Irish music, and some artists in the Americana genre can take themselves a little too seriously. Fortunately, almost every guest rises to the occasion and makes Voice of Ages a lively pleasure.
The list of guest musicians is diverse, but the Chieftains have done these “event” albums long enough that to have perfected the formula. The guests on the album aren’t shoehorned awkwardly into an Irish song. They basically sing or play something that fits their own style, and the band complements the song with its stylings. Thus the Southern twang evident in the voices of the Pistol Annies doesn’t sound jarring when backed by the harps, flutes and fiddles of the Chieftains on “Fair and Tender Ladies.” The Decemberists’ take on Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” sounds like something that could have come from the rootsy The King Is Dead album. The Low Anthem, one of the aforementioned bands that could have been overly serious, sounds relatively upbeat on Ewan MacColl’s “School Days Over” – at least as upbeat as one can get while singing about transitioning from school to working in a mine.
While the majority of the songs on the album are traditional Irish or American folk tunes, with a few from the more contemporary masters (MacColl, Dylan, Stephan Foster) thrown in, The Civil Wars do an original with “Lily Love.” The airy and sweetly sung tune fits perfectly with the tone of the album; it would be a pleasant change of pace to hear the duo sound that upbeat on their own recordings.
The only times when the momentum drags are on Lisa Lannigan’s “My Lagan Love,” which seems longer than its three-minute length, and Bon Iver’s sleepy take on “Down in the Willow Garden.”
The most interesting track on the album, and maybe on any album in recent memory, is “The Chieftains in Orbit.” Special guest musician/astronaut Cady Coleman recorded her part on board the International Space Station, using a tin whistle borrowed from Moloney and a flute from Chieftain Matt Molloy. Could this be the first song at least partially recorded in outer space? If so, leave it to the Chieftains to be breaking new ground, fifty years into their career.
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