Long Expectant Comes at Last
Compass Records 7 4287 2
Appropriate enough title: Cathal McConnell's last solo offering was in 1978; but I'm not at all sure what to make of this. There are times during the course of the unfolding of the music on the CD when Cathal McConnell appears to be playing frivolous games with punters' affections: at others, with ease and fluency, demonstrating his outstanding capacity as singer and flute-player and justifying the same punters' faith. There is, too, a measure of the kind of approach which the Boys of the Lough have used on so many of their outpourings where a number of guests are invited to play along (or, in this case, seem to have insisted) to the extent that they begin to lap McConnell's individual contribution: a total of thirty-one souls including Richard and Linda Thompson and Dave Mattacks - the latter whose names take you back some. Given the different musical backgrounds and interests of those guests there is sometimes a clash of styles (since styles imply particular steeping, motivation - and baggage). There is little, at the same time, which is not competently done in its own fashion.
The producers, Bill Ochs and Edward Haber, acknowledge the eclecticism pointing out the 'serious' and the 'zany'. McConnell, indeed, writes here that some music is meant to be experimental - most clearly, for example, where he explores the less-used register of the flute (in the way, I noted in a previous review, that Kevin Rowsome did with his pipes) and then as he introduces his own composed variations on themes. Nothing objectionable about either of those … if they work. He also allows or encourages certain flights of fancy amongst his guests whilst seemingly well in control of his own contribution - which, once or twice, engenders a mismatch. Ultimately, if his actual singing and playing are not damaged in the process I still ended up as regards the mixtures asking why and what for and concluding that much was un-necessary. Below is a summation in a kind of descending order of attraction for which I've had to resort to a bit of dodging about.
The nature of material is pleasantly mixed in a broad spectrum of traditional form. None of the nine songs on the CD is of the most demanding type in respect of presentation or for the apprehension of the listener. Six of them are agreeable love songs but five are, perhaps, unfamiliar as representative of what one might term everyday repertoire. The searching out of 'new' songs is always welcome - two more songs are discussed below. The exceptions are Lough Erne Shore (see below) which McConnell recorded before on The Boys of the Lough's Open Road, Topic 12TS433, 1983 (called there Lough Erne but not to be confused with the Lough Erne that he recorded on The Boys of the Lough's Second Album, LED2090, 1974) and The Gypsies - of a slightly different order again, got from Len Graham who, in turn, got it form the ever lamented Joe Holmes (see also below).
Only two of the songs are sung unaccompanied, though - a pity given Cathal McConnell's history of gorgeous singing. On Track Ten, Edward Boyle, a song from Paddy Maguire, Fermanagh, the essential singing McConnell is found. It's not a startlingly impressive song but McConnell sounds absolutely comfortable with the idiom and produces a measured, mellifluous contribution. The narrative is allowed to do its job.
Similarly, on Track Fourteen, the title song - apparently thrown off in the interval between other 'takes' - offers a rather unusual metrical line with a run of three beats at the end which demands a corresponding tune shaped for and by it - the sort of thing more familiar, perhaps, in a song such as The Rambling Boys of Pleasure. Though McConnell is here at ease, the song does not quite feel as if it's sitting comfortably (an illusory perception, no doubt) and I did wonder if there's a translation from the Irish somewhere in its history.
Both songs are eminently approachable, largely because there's no fuss attached but also, as a corollary, because a listener will immediately recognise the idiom.
The contrast between the Lough Erne (Track Sixteen) here and the earlier recording is marked. The first recording was unaccompanied in McConnells' best caressing manner with a slightly elongated end to each line. The tune is really especially plangent. Here it's arranged for McConnell and five other musicians, mostly woodwind players. The voice remains melodious but there's a kind of stagger in the progress of the song, the rhythm is straightened, the character changed by the harmonics. It's still a pleasant track in the modern way but I'm not sure if the group contribution is worthwhile: an example where the accompanying instruments have, as it were, taken too much on themselves and actually have the last word - I just feel that McConnell and the song would have done.
As a sort of parallel case, The Bonnie Wee Lass o' the Glen (Track Eleven), as it follows Edward Boyle, encapsulates the change. The voice soars above the bits and pieces from a group backing which is smoothly done in the main but with some almost gratuitous effects - McConnell meandering on the whistle, a 'bong' thrown in, cymbal sounds, drum tocking away followed by snare, bass and a bit of a hammer (I'm afraid that the drums, particularly, irritated me) and irresolute electric interludes. So much sounds un-necessary and doesn't cohere as a rounded presentation. Indeed, there is a discrepancy between the melody and the accompaniment which is simply not resolved and the quality and kind of text is not complemented.
As far as Cathal McConnell's playing goes in its most straightforward manner, it's a similar story to the above with Track Nine, a reel from and named for Johnny Loughran, a fiddler from Pomeroy, County Tyrone and another from Frank McCollum, fiddler from Ballycastle, County Antrim - written for his daughter, entitled Kathleen Marie and well settled in a traditional idiom - where the two tunes are played on the flute in straightforward fashion. McConnell is here accompanied on bodrhan by Colm Murphy. Now where did he spring from? I recall his playing on the old Daly/Creagh album from Gael-Linn (1977). Here, as there, he is obviously aware of the shape and movement of the tunes; and provides a restrained beat where, it seems, he consciously follows the flute attack rather than, say, offer counterpoint (and this occurs elsewhere on the CD). I like the positioning of this track, picking up the reel rhythm of the previous one.
In Track Seventeen, a reel entitled The Yorkshire Lasses, McConnell is joined on fiddle by John MacManus (from Aughakillymaude, County Fermanagh, out in the US of A on a holiday) - who gave him the tune and also some of his songs - and in any other context the resultant sound would be perfectly acceptable. Here, it's rougher compared to the sophistication on other tracks and one is acutely aware of a difference in style - lots of staccato trebling, for example, and some octave playing reminiscent (unsurprisingly, given the proximity of counties of Donegal fiddling - but does this also give us insight into a Fermanagh trait?) - the sort of difference found amongst the varying approaches on the latest Boys of the Lough CD (reviewed for MT recently). There is a sense, then, that the track, because of its inclusion in amongst the other kinds of playing has, in a way, been exposed to the danger of a misunderstanding of the nature and quality of the playing and might conceivably be somehow downgraded. I should add that Charlie Lennon just happened to be around and plays his usual deft but unobtrusive piano.
In the final track, Nineteen, the variant in the first tune, The Cocktail - which is The Dublin Reel - is freshly effective; the first part of the second tune, Johnny Wilmot's, a version of The Fermoy Lasses, from the Cape Breton fiddler of the same name (JW, that is), just a little unusual; doubled flute involved; the whole satisfying. It might seem to be something of a statement about McConnell's inheritance, since it, too, is set well in what we accept as a normal traditional approach (again with Murphy on bodrhan); and, of course, it has something of a prominent position as a finale - following on from which, both tunes illustrate how traditional form can and does renew itself without resort to fancy stuff.
Track Twelve, two jigs entitled Big John's Hard Jig and Mama's Pet, begins fluidly and the first, from John MacManus, has an immediate impact even if its second part has not yet a ring of authenticity - it will take getting used to. There's a simple but engaging change from tune to tune by both flute and guitar. Listen out for some staccato playing from McConnell second time round in the second jig, the kind of thing which, when you sit and think, is almost an obvious ploy…but which is how, sometimes, a good musician will shake your ear. It's so very easy, when listening to playing of high class, to take it all for granted. Throughout, the guitar refuses, so to speak, to fall into a normal pattern of musical resolution, seemingly as a counter-effect, and on occasion I felt unsure about its success.
That still leaves the bulk of the CD to assess and each of the remaining tracks poses questions. First, though, lest we lose full perspective and become too po-faced, there's no denying an overall sense of fun and experiment in the music. This is exemplified most obviously in the two humorous songs on Tracks Eight and Eighteen where there's a substantial bunch of people joining in choruses. The first one of these tracks, The Hurricane of Reels, a clever skit on the names of tunes composed by Paddy Tunney, is a good session warmer (I can vouch for that from Malachy's at Quinn), sung to the tunes of the tunes: Bonny Kate, The Sligo Maid, The Bucks…, Miss Macleod and The Girl from Donegal (plus bodrhan). The disparity of tone amongst the voices can be moulded by this collective approach and it is, just about, in this track; but, in the second of the two songs, There's the Day, another gently humorous contribution, each chorus changes its character according to who's singing it - and, sadly, there's a rather messy effect, in the end, with (I think) Heather Wood standing out like a sore thumb. McConnell sings away almost despite what's going on round him.
The Gypsies - The Dark-Eyed Gypsy elsewhere - has a pack of musicians with it. McConnell has great control of the octave jump in the tune - another lovely one - but the piano interpretation immediately softens the edges of the song and so does the cello when it arrives. The initial harmony voice in the second stanza is fine but then disappears and reappears dramatically - thus even sounding arbitrary. Then, gradually, the cello is introduced, a very curious 'Mmm' sound, musical interludes, more harmony: all clever enough - but why? They become a distraction, I think, rather than an enhancement. The unease inherent in the narrative has its shoulder patted - wrongly, I believe.
As you work further in and around the tracks, then, the apparent sense of fun disintegrates somewhat until it threatens indulgence. I reckon that this happens in Track Five, The Derry Hornpipe, where there's a mixture of effects. Cathal McConnells' playing is very elaborate: in the third part of the tune, played first time round by one whistle, some phrasing is lost and, second time around, this time with two whistles, harmonic effect is switched on and off in a slightly unsettling manner…The best variants on the known tune come in the fifth part…The sixth part sounds almost rushed (both times) … The accompaniment - guitar, cittern - is subdued and goes its own sweet way. Ultimately, McConnell's whistle-playing, if virtuoso, is, by the same token, rather 'breathless', and, whilst it all raises a smile or two, it still leaves you thinking: so?
On Track Fifteen, the reels The Humours of Scarriff and The Yellow Tinker, there's another mixture. Flute with piano works well and the change from 'minor' to 'major' in the tunes is spot-on, the first more clearly moving from one to another and the second, in particular, one which seems, subtly, to veer - very much part of their attraction. In fact, the piano, in places, has just the right frisson to lift the progress of the tune. Flute with fiddle produce good ensemble. However, the flute variations in the second tune then begin to sound like those dreadful show-off ones we got sick of in playings of The Mason's Apron way back. They just don't last as sustained pleasure once the initial surprise is felt. This, too, is a track that may be thought to hover on a borderline between success and doubt over its impact.
The effectiveness of both the two tracks just described are down to McConnell's own judgement. He is, as noted, happy to positively claim experiment on several tracks and not, of course, to be denied. But in Track Two, the reels Crowley's (usually known as Number One, as it happens) and O'Rourke's, after an awful few bars' introduction, he hits the tunes full pelt and his interpretation of the first does not really carry conviction. The showmanship does not conceal the paucity of invention. The second tune has a more familiar sound with fewer variants and one can almost afford to ignore the cittern in its unobtrusiveness; but there's still a sense of rush in the playing. Then McConnell goes back to the first tune with the same uncomfortable result.
Throughout the CD, too, there's always a sense of wondering Why in so much of the group work here, as I've suggested with The Gypsies. Undoubtedly, there are very professional, very clever, very musical contributions but, apart from the possibility that McConnell just fancied having this or that musician along, he doesn't need them. The character of the music is also changed. On some tracks, for instance, it becomes chamber music: nice - often particularly nice - but alien and, therefore, in something of an opposition to the more clearly defined traditional-sounding tracks. You will make up your own mind as to how seriously this need be taken and, doubtless, find your own joys.
The change of character, though, happens right at the start. The first thing we hear is the guitar - before the singer and song, The Banks of Strathdon, from John Strachan, the Aberdeen singer. McConnell seems to be close-miked here and there's even a detectable shakiness in intonation; but the rhythms are easy and the song gets warmer. Why McConnell wanted to introduce the flute and the whistle I don't know - he must like the tune! - since they meander. We then get a fiddle and then the pipes but in bits so no one musician makes a case, is not truly involved, so that the track sounds uncertain of its weight in attack. There's some harmony singing - very good as it occurs in the final stanza but why wait until then? All told there's a kind of circling round and edging in and out of the melody line, no definite commitment, as it were, before a final guitar ending. The prolonged coda has left any impact that the voice may have made in a distant past. It seems that a marker is put down involving a group approach here, but its impact, I believe, is uncertain.
In Track Four, The Bloomin' Bright Star of Bellisle (close-miked again), a very attractive song from Newfoundland, the group concept again assumes importance. The text here has the stamp of the hedge-school which has distinctive characteristics in composition even if they occasionally slide into sentimentality. McConnell, because he is so thoroughly at home with the song, because he seems to be involved in its narrative, keeps it more than just afloat. Listen to how he manages the flattened note in the second line of each stanza though why this occurs only halfway through the song I can't understand; and to the characteristic trick, born out of the localised variety of English that he uses, of slightly dislocated diction or, alternatively, a joining together of certain words as it is applied without disturbing the run of the narrative and the import of the song. The instrumental accompaniment, well enough done on fiddle in a smooth - shall we say, classical ? - manner with vibrato (Winifred Horan), yet then seems to be un-necessary and what on earth do we want with 'drone samples' at any point?
The apogee here emerges in the tracks involving the playing of two airs. What, in other tracks, can be accepted none too seriously here seems to be meant more gravely - the 'message' of the air suggested. Thus, on Track Seven, The Flower of Finae, 'an air taken from a County Cavan song' which his father sang and which, as usual, McConnell makes a good job of as melody, the harmony line on the piano (Bill Peek), introduced in the second stanza, is subtle in a conventional musical sense. Alto flute is integrated with it. Still, this is more chamber music (I like chamber music - 'my Mozart and my Hadyn long ago' - but am not necessarily happy with traditional music in its guise; granted that the terms cannot be pursued too closely - it's rather the moulding through a group's involvement that I have in mind) and it also slips towards sentimentality as the form's edges are softened by too much lingering here and there, a tendency towards the smarmy. What follows is supposed to be a 'slow expressive reel' (Farewell to Waverley Park): no, it isn't … it just creeps apace and has the stamp of flute exercises. The concept and its resultant sounds, involving a whole clatter of musicians - Joannie Madden on alto flute, the said Bill Peek, Winifred Horan on fiddles, Andy Statman on clarinet, Lindsey Horner on 'bowed double bass' (in case you didn't notice) and Trevor Hutchison on - careful, now - 'electric upright bass' - to me, is somewhat sloppy, sentimental and, in the end, naïve and un-necessary.
Then, on Track Thirteen, Leaving Kintail (from the Lochaber fiddler Angus Grant) a pipe tune which also had Gaelic words to it, a 'pipe band' effect is claimed. Why? What's wrong with McConnell playing it straight? And it doesn't succeed in that effect anyway. The introduction is not worth bothering about; there are some seemingly random cymbal sounds dotting the track, an even worse drum on another playing of the tune - which is, therefore, simply not helped but interfered with. Pity: the tune is a fresh one for me and appealing. It's a tune, I'd say, which gains as its limited palette is repeated and which a tiny change in the run of notes in the melodic line will throw into acute relief (you can hear that kind of movement writ large in some ceol mor). The flute is very mellow but the rest gets in the way. Tourist stuff. The ending is pure cat!
Turning back to Track Three we encounter (McConnell's phrase) 'slow jigs' from McConnell's own pen (Scotland/Ireland, The Hangover and The Fermanagh Curves named by a Scottish concertina player, Simon Thoumire) whose pace then hops up but rather jerkily and whose melodic strains are somewhat strange, demanding on the ear (not altogether a bad thing, of course) and, ultimately, a bit too clever for their own good. They don't, somehow, convince in their musical phrasing. As the track gathers literal momentum we have a group performance (Pat Kilbride on cittern, Jim Whitney on double-bass, Richard Thompson with 'Gibson tap steel bass' - is this important? - and Andy Statman with a 'mandolin cameo') - double-bass and a cittern which does add quite a snap but which together alter the balance of attack; some kind of irrelevant wail and, then, almost a growl in the final playing. Experiment? Fun? OK.
I suppose that, given the de rigeur features of much contemporary playing - principally, the reluctance to let the words or tune and the solo voice or instrument do the job - it could be argued that objecting to much of it is rather to wallow in some kind of nostalgia and that this reviewer has some kind of fixed idea of tradition. Not so. Let it be stated clearly. This reviewer has no objections to newer ideas and newer instruments nor group assembly if the contribution is well thought out: complementary, perhaps, rather than wholesale and with the music itself as focus (and, to be fair, this happens in places on Cathal McConnell's CD). I'm also very much aware that what we take as tradition at the moment, has, in its nature, changed and will go on changing. What is remarkable is that so much that may well have been recognisable at the end of the eighteenth century in textual terms has survived intact and, musically, that form and phrasing, likewise, have served perfectly adequately and are likely to do so still. I just don't want to see music made an eejit of for the sake of a passing fancy or an ego; and, somehow, a way has to be found to argue this through - better still, to play it through onto convincing terms - and to provide a nub of interplay between musician or singer and audience and an augur of how traditions can remain vital or not. Any artefact, in this pursuit, 'reads' the listener (or the reviewer) and one is happy to concede a change in perspective, to struggle to make sense of trends and more deeply-lasting musical shifts.
So: Cathal McConnell here offers a great deal of expected pleasantry and also a challenge of experiment; but, bluntly, quite a lot of the latter leaves me unconvinced, lamenting lapses in tastiness and a tad disappointed in one of my heroes - 'Oh, McConnell: will I ne'er see you more?'
Roly Brown - 31.5.00
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