I bought the Solas album with some trepidation, having been disappointed by their previous release"Sunny Spells". I needn't have worried. Seamus Egan has regained his Midas touch with my "Album of the Year". A change of band line-up means that John Williams is replaced on accordion by Mick McAuley who not only plays a full part instrumentally but also supplies backing vocals and a few original tunes. The opener "Pastures of Plenty" (Woody Guthrie) swings along at a syncopated pace with Doyle's chunky guitar and Egan's mandolin punctuating the beat while fiddle, box and whistle add flowing melodic counterpoint behind Karan Casey's enchanting vocals. A marvellous opener that shows the Solas multi-instrumental talent. On "The Stride set" Winnie Horan plays leading violin on her own composition before being joined by banjo and box for "Tom Doherty's" and the tunes really pick up pace before Egan (tenor) and Bela Fleck (5 String) start duelling banjos on "Contradiction". The playing is of the highest order, breathtaking in its originality. The set finishes up in climactic whirling Galician style dance tune written by Egan. The "Waking Up Jigs" build slowly again with fiddle and mandolin before McAuley takes over on box, finishing with his own tune "Aodhan's Jig" to the accompaniment of some wonderful afro percussion sounds by guest John Anthony. "Grey Selchie" is as plaintive a song as you'll ever hear. Casey's enchanting voice is sublime, contrasting with the gregorian backing chorus. It's a subtle, spooky arrangement of an old mermaid myth theme. Egan's flute, Horan's fiddle and McAuley's box lilt atmospherically and Michael Aheron's cello gives mellow depth to the musical seascape. Peggy Seeger's "Song of Choice" features more superb interplay, this time in the contrasting vocals of Casey and guest Iris Dement whose voices complement each other well and produce some nice harmonies. The instrumental arrangement again is top class and the playing very impressive, rivalling my favourite version of the song by Dick Gaughan on his "Different Kind of Love Song" CD. "La Bruxa" is a slow air featuring lyrical flute, fiddle and accordion with each instrument taking a turn at lead and although it doesn't really lead anywhere it is a pleasant interlude. Doyle's guitar gives the next song "A Maid That Sleeps In Love" a funky groove accentuated by strong bass and drum beat and some nice Bela Fleck banjo ornamentation. The low whistle and fiddle add lovely counter-melodic fills and riffs. I've heard an earlier version of this called "A Maid That's Deep In Love" and can't recall by whom but the Solas version is great. There's fantastic fluid fluting by Egan on "Banks of Lough Gowna" in the Vega Set and he also excels on mandolin and whistle on the title jig, duetting brilliantly with McAuley's box playing. Karan Casey sings another heartbreaking lament on "A Chomaraigh Aoibhinn O" (Sweet Comeraghs) and is tastefully accompanied by Winifred Horan on fiddle and vocals. Hauntingly beautiful. Egan shows off again on mandolin in the "Sproggies Reel" (another McAuley original) before Mick and Winnie take over for a great Liz Carroll tune "Up All Night". Flute enters the fray for a sprightly Charlie Lennon reel "Weaving Dreams" which really takes flight. "O'Dowd's" slow reel starts the penultimate track and Seamus Egan's flute playing is plaintive and delicate until box and guitar kick off into "The Beauty Spot". The sound continues to build as fiddle, banjo and drum join in and the last two reels in the set move at a cracking pace. The closing song is a typically enigmatic John Spillane composition "Clock Street" which is cyclical like courtly dance, driven by the lovely double bass of Chico Huff. A delightfully airy way to finish with flute and mandolin adding light decorative touches and Horan's fiddle echoing Casey's vocal melody. Singing, playing and production come as close to perfection as it's possible to get and the arrangements throughout are intelligent and showcase each band member's contribution to the glorious Solas sound. It's a CD that repays every listen with new musical insights. My one regret is that it would be almost impossible for them to recapture the sound live unless Seamus Egan grows another two sets of arms. Sadly, since the CD was recorded, Karan Casey has parted company with the band. Karan is another wonderful performer who has graced the stage at Downpatrick Folk Club. Buy it !
Karan Casey's voice is the main reason for buying this album. What else is there? Well, there are sets of jigs and reels that are as jiggy and reelly as you could wish for, if you like that kind of thing. Also, Iris DeMent joins Casey on "Song of Choice" and it is great to hear these two fine and distinctive voices together, even though the song itself is unremarkable. It would be wonderful to hear more of them as a duo. The weak points are the two songs in Gaelic -- which gain nothing by being sung in the original (unless of course you speak the language) -- and the dreadful La Bruxa, a painful squeezebox effort that might earn a busker a few centimes (or Euros) outside the Paris Metro, but does not belong here. Otherwise, the musicianship is excellent throughout. Casey'e departure was her gain and the band's loss, but this album remains a must for lovers of Celtic music, and for followers of America's various folk traditions.