"Common Ground - Voices of Modern Irish Music"

(EMI/Premier 7234 8 37691 2 4)

Review by Han Speek, (c)1996

Track list:
1 "O/ Bhean A/ Ti/" - Mai/re Brennan
2 "Mary of the South Seas" - Tim & Neil Finn
3 "Tomorrow" - Bono & Adam Clayton
4 "Cavan Potholes" - Sharon Shannon
5 "Help me to Believe" - Paul Brady
6 "On Raglan Road" - Sinead O'Connor
7 "As I Roved Out" - Brian Kennedy
8 "The Night Before Larry Was Stretched" - Elvis Costello
9 "Mna/ na h-Eireann" - Kate Bush
10 "Whistling Low/Errigal" - Davy Spillane & Donal Lunny
11 "My Heart's Tonight in Ireland" - Andy Irvine
12 "Cathain" - Liam O/ Maonlai
13 "Bogie's Bonnie Belle" - Christy Moore

Guest musicians include: Mairtin O'Connor, Barney McKenna, Nollaigh Casey, Brendan Power and lots of others. Sharon Shannon and Davy Spillane also lend their services to some of the other featured artists.

This new album, produced by Donal Lunny (but take note: there's also an executive producer listed, Gerald Seligman, so who exactly did what we'll probably never find out) is part of a project that was supposed to come out as the first Irish music CD-ROM. The CD-ROM version, however, is still not complete, so EMI has already released the sound-only CD, to promote it's new Premier label. The album hit the shops, at least here in Europe, about 2 weeks ago, and should be available in most record shops.

The important question here is of course: Is it worth buying, and if so, for who ? Because this album, though clearly aimed at high sales numbers, may not be for everybody, ESPECIALLY not for those who would normally buy Irish music. There are a number of well-known Irish traditional musicians on this album, but most of the tracks don't SOUND traditional, which is for the largest part due to the production, and only for a very small part to the choice of repertoire. The producer of this album has obviously aimed for a very full, modern sound, sort of a nineties equivalent of the Phil Spector "Wall of Sound". The sound is best characterised as having a full low end of the sound spectrum (the fat bass guitar on the Sharon Shannon track is almost annoying, though a similar bass sound applied more modestly on the Bono/Adam Clayton track works out fine) a warm midrange - this is where all the action takes place - and all kinds of high-end sounds to colour the result. And this productional effort is done more than justice by the exceptional recording quality.

Donal is featured as a musician on all tracks except the Kate Bush one, but on some more audible than on others. He plays acoustic bouzouki on most tracks, typically very audible in the intros but sometimes drowning in the arrangement when all the other instruments are added. He also plays electric bouzouki on 2 tracks, and guitar, (bass) bodhran and harmonium on some others.

Like most albums I've heard, this one has some stronger tracks, and some not-so-strong tracks. I'd be hard pushed to pick out the strongest track (more on that lateron), but I'd have no problem naming the not-so-strong ones. The absolute low point of the album for me is Brian Kennedy's rendition of "As I Roved Out", a song also done by Planxty quite some years ago. Brian uses a lot of vibrato as he sings, and also has a tendency to bend notes to extremes, which can sound quite unpleasant. A close second for the low score would be Kate Bush, who is on this album trying to cope with a text in Gaelic, something she has clearly never done before. And she even manages to get the pronunciation right most of the time, but it too sounds stiff and un-natural. Not for me, this one. And then there is Liam O'Maonlai's contribution. It's not that I have some explicit comments to make on this one, it's just not my piece of cake. Wrong atmosphere, too sombre. But it has Donal's bouzouki quite clear in the mix. So check it out for yourself.

As I said, picking the strongest track is not so easy. I think that people from a different musical background will pick different tracks. Andy Irvine's track is probably the highlight for the traditional purists. The "close-to-Clannad" sound of Maire Brannan's track and the Davy Spillane/Donal Lunny instrumental are for the Irish-oriented romantics, and the Bono/Adam Clayton track is a must for the U2 fans (a major improvement over the original recording of this song, I think). Most of the other tracks are probably of interest mostly (only ?) for the respective groups of dedicated fans of these artists: Sinead O'Connor, Elvis Costello, Paul Brady, Sharon Shannon. But I wonder if these fans will buy this album for just one track. If they do, EMI/Premier have got themselves a bestseller. But if they don't, then I think the big sales will have to come from the crowd out there that basically knows nothing about Irish music, and doesn't care if it's Irish or not as long as it sounds good. And I think that the choice of music and artists will make it not so easy to get them to listen to it, at least not in the world outside Ireland.

Go back to the Donal Lunny biography.

Back to the Irish Bouzouki Page