Sunday, May 26, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 517: The Irish Descendants

It has been quite the run on Canadian folk recently.  My next album is the third one in a row.

Disc 517 is…. Gypsies & Lovers
Artist: Irish Descendants

Year of Release: 1994

What’s up with the Cover?  Attention folk artists:  this is how you do a cover.  Keep it simple, keep the graphic lines neat and clean and, if possible, ensure your band has a groovy logo.  When it comes to the importance of a groovy logo folk musicians are only rivaled by metal bands.

How I Came To Know It:  I already liked the band through owning their debut album (reviewed way back at Disc 60) and so it was a natural progression to buy their next one.  Also, I had recently taken a trip to Ottawa and while I was there I was introduced to a cool pub called the Heart and Crown.  It had a live east coast act every night, and I got to know the Stan Rogers classic “Barrett’s Privateers.”  I didn’t yet own any Stan Rogers, so the fact that “Gypsies & Lovers” had a cover version was also a selling feature.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Irish Descendants albums, and “Gypsies and Lovers” is the best.

Rating:  4 stars but close to 5.

As you can tell if you checked that link to Disc 60, the Irish Descendants will never win a beauty contest.  However, it is their good fortune to work in a musical genre that is not obsessed with image and marketing.  Folk music fans do look for strong musicianship, however, and on that front these guys have few equals.

“Gypsies & Lovers” is their third album, and also their best.  The musicianship is so tight it is seamless and when I hear them all playing together in such perfect harmony it is sad to think that a few years later they’d have a bitter falling out.

Since this album comes on the heels of two other Canadian folk albums, comparisons are inevitable.

I praised the Rankin Family for Jimmy Rankin’s “Roving Gypsy Boy” but it falls short of what the Irish Descendants deliver with the traditional number, “Raggle Taggle Gypsy.”  Admittedly Jimmy’s song is an original composition so points for that, and he also has a happier story to tell – the ‘roving gypsy boy’ being basically a friendly traveler that shares freely with those he meets on the road.  By contrast, the ‘raggle taggle gypsy’ runs off with some rich guy’s wife, which seems far less hospitable.  To be fair, the story is a happy one from the perspective of the wife.

But the melody in “Raggle Taggle Gypsy” can’t be denied, expertly carried by some kick-ass bouzouki playing (I think) layered with tin whistles, bodhrans and a bunch of other traditional instruments I don’t know enough to pick out.

I also noted the beautiful love song on the last Gordon Lightfoot album, “Dream Street Rose” but once again the Irish Descendants have it beat with a remake of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” which is not only better than Lightfoot’s offering, it is head and shoulders better than the Donovan original.  “Catch the Wind” may be principally about wooing a woman, but it is so beautifully constructed not falling for its charms would be the bigger sin.

The Irish Descendants also bravely tackle the Stan Rogers’ classic, “Barrett’s Privateers” and do a strong job.  Rogers version has a raw gusto that appeals, but the Descendants put a polish on it that the original can’t match.  I heard the Descendants version first, and so I have a soft spot for it, but I like them both in equal measure.

The struggles of Newfoundland’s fishing industry is a common thread through all Descendants albums, and “Gypsies & Lovers” entry into the catalogue is “Will They Lie There Evermore” a heartbreaking tale of an aging fisherman watching not only his livelihood pass away, but also his neighbours moving away and ultimately, his own son:

“Well I hear people say we’d be better off to stay
Ashore and train for jobs outside the fishery
Now wouldn’t I look like a fool to go traipsin’ off to school
After forty years of living off the sea

“Now my son he’s barely twenty one and handy at the trawl
For years he helped me fish the Labrador
Now he’s moving to Ontario before the first snowfall
‘Dad there’s nothing left for me ‘round here no more.

“And I wonder will I see his children born
And I wonder will they lie there evermore.”

When the album isn’t causing me to well up with stuff like that, it is wowing me with technical excellence.  The bodhran and fiddle playing on the reel medleys “Merry Blacksmith/Swallow’s Tale/Banshee” and “My Lagan Love/Drowsy Maggie/Dionne Reel” are both amazing.  “Rattlin’ Bog” is a bit of a silly song that is more of a musical exercise than a joy to listen to.

That said, as someone who is still struggling with keeping even the simplest guitar rhythm at a steady tempo, listening to these guys deftly and deliberately increase tempo ever so slightly through about fifteen increasingly complex verses is quite something.
Very few of the songs are originals to the Irish Descendants, but with the exception of “Barrett’s Privateers” I don’t have anyone else doing them, so they are original to me.  If you were to only own one record by these guys, this is the one to get.

Best tracks:  Raggle Taggle Gypsy, Catch the Wind, Barrett’s Privateers, Merry Blacksmith/Swallow’s Tale/Banshee, Will They Lie There Evermore

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