"Coolfin" - The Donal Lunny Band

(Hummingbird/RTE, CDHBRTE 221)

Review by Philippe Varlet, (c)1998

Track list:
1 Spanish Point
2 The Lowlands Of Holland
3 Glentown/Miss Monaghans/Man Of The House/
Green Fields Of Glentown
4 Mouseskin Shoe/Dancing In Allihies
5 Moldavian Triptych
6 Butlers
7 False Fly
8 Trip To Sado/Dan-Ti Dan-Dan
9 Coolfin/Nora Criona
10 Kickdancer
11 Siul A Ruin
12 Lucky Lucky Day

With its echoes of the 1987 Donal Lunny Band and Moving Hearts' "The Storm," Lunny's latest "Coolfin" is certainly the product of a logical progression in his blending of traditional and pop/rock/world-music idioms, but not necessarily a more successful one. Once again, Lunny has surrounded himself with top-notch musicians, the great John McSherry on pipes and whistles, Nollaig Casey and Mairead Nesbitt on fiddles (with Maire Breathnach and Sean Smyth joining in on one track), Sharon Shannon on accordion, Maighread and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill on vocals, as well as the great Hungarian singer Marta Sebestyen, and a number of other musicians (previously unknown to me) on bass, drums, percussions, and keyboards. Overall, the sound is pretty close to that of the 1987 live album, except for the addition of drums and bass, which at times become tiresome. Once again, the tracks combine traditional dance tunes and songs with new compositions by Lunny and Casey--although there isn't anything quite as memorable as "The Tolka Polka" here.

The new percussion and bass-ladden texture is made obvious right from the start on Lunny's own "Spanish Point," a typically sinuous melody first presented on twin fiddles, then with added low whistle and pipes. It's a lovely piece, although, like much of Lunny's original material on this album, its meandering style deprives it from a distinctive character and it ends up sounding too much like aimless "noodling." For dance fans, I should mention that this track also features the taps of former "Riverdance" star Jean Butler--you'll have to pay close attention to hear them in the midst of all the percussion. The second track, probably the most objectionable one of the album for me, features a female singer named Eddi Reader who sighs and moans her way through "The Lowlands of Holland," an otherwise wonderful traditional song. The pop vocalizations are just too much.

The third track, entitled "Glentown," is a medley of four reels including Tommy Peoples' celebrated composition and fiddling tour-de-force "The Green Fields of Glentown." This tune was featured on Lunny's 1987 live recording, driven by Nollaig Casey's fiddle, as well as on Sharon Shannon's first album. Once again, the "groove" is established with bass and a host of percussions, with syncopated tinges of African pop (I was reminded of the Malian singer Nahawa Doumbia's "Didadi"). McSherry's superb piping opens up the set with "Miss Monaghan's," and Sharon Shannon takes over for the next reel, "The Man of the House," with McSharry switching to low whistle. The last time through, the fiddles (four of them) take over on the last bar to transition into "Green Fields of Glentown." The setting is the same one Casey played so well in 1987. However, while the combination of four fiddles adds volume, the quasi-symphonic sound achieved doesn't necessarily make the track more appealing musically. The set concludes with "The Mountain Lark," with McSherry's pipes rejoining the fiddle quartet.

Nollaig Casey's excellent fiddling is showcased on the next track of two reels which she composed, "The Mouseskin Shoe" and "Dancing in Allihies." I especially liked the second tune, although both would surely qualify for the "funky" list started on IRTRAD not too long ago. This is followed by possibly my favorite track on the album, "Moldavian Triptych," a suite of three Eastern European songs in varied meters (the middle one is in 7/8) sung by the great Marta Sebestyen, known for her collaboration with the Hungarian band Muszikas--as well as for her participation in the more questionable (ethically if not musically) world/techno album "Deep Forest." Marta's voice, which recalls at times that of Galway singer Dolores Keane--in fact, she recorded several songs learned from Keane on a recent album called "Kismet"--just makes me melt. She could be sing Bing Crosby hits, I think I would still listen to her. The instrumental accompaniment is arranged to perfection, with low whistle following the voice on the soulful slow opening song, and fiddles, pipes and strummed bouzouki taking over on the dance-like second and third numbers. The last song progressively accelerate to a Whirling-Dervish-like frenzy and leaves you panting for more. I only regret there are no indications of what the songs are.

The next track, "Butlers," is another fiddle-driven Lunny instrumental which is pleasant enough to listen to but also suffers a bit from the "noodles." It appears to have been though of as a dance vehicle for the lovely Jean Butler, whose taps are heard once again faintly, burried as they are in the midst of percussion sounds. This is followed by the song "False Fly," apparently a version of the classic Child ballad "False Knight on the Road." The lovely voice of Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill leads, while Triona sings the harmonies. Perhaps another deliberate world-music touch, Lunny's opening bouzouki riff reminded me of the sound of the Tuvan banjo. The fiddle breaks, on the other hand, were rather uninspired. The bouzouki starts things off again, briskly this time, for the next instrumental, two polkas composed by Lunny. Except for the thumping bass and, later, the drums and organ, this sounds so much like the famous 1987 "Tolka Polka" set. Well, almost, none of the tunes are quite as memorable as that "Tolka Polka."

The title track comes next, a set of slides starting out with Lunny 's "Coolfin," with some interesting accent patterns, followed by the traditional "Nora Criona." Another Lunny slow reel, "Kickdancer," comes next, showcasing McSherry's low whistle and Spillane-style blues piping. I rather like the tune, particularly for its nice rhythmic tricks in the second part. The Ni Dhomhnaill sisters are featured again on the next track, for a lovely and this time rather straightforward rendition of "Siul A Run." Maighread's lead vocals are to die for here. The closing track, a Lunny composition called "Lucky Lucky Day," starts off in slip-jig meter, with fiddle, accordion, and whistle playing the lead. Midway through, though, while the melody remains the same, the accent pattern changes to duple meter. Very confusing for a while, but in an exhilarating sort of way.

Welcome back, Mr. Lunny.

Philippe Varlet philvar@erols.com

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