This is the way to do traditional Irish music. The 28-minute EP Thar Toinn/ Seaborne shows a wonderful sense of restraint, and its simplicity means that there are no distractions from its key features: Nic Amhlaoibh’s voice, the strongly Celtic setting and the tremendous focus on melody throughout.
An understated strength and smooth tenderness combine in the singer’s voice (she fronted Danú for thirteen years), making listening to her a real pleasure.
As well as the first three tracks being sung in Gaelic, the tunes accentuate the Celtic spirit, particularly the third track (I hope it’s not rude avoid its title, because it is about 60 letters long and incomprehensible to anyone outside Ireland or Irish America). The Gaelic helps actually, lending the songs an air of mystery and mood that may be lost a little if the words were more easily understood.
Nic Amhlaoibh has an ear for melody and each song has a clear and natural tune. While few of us can understand Gaelic, these tunes win out and are easy enough to sing along to (well, hum, anyway). The thoroughly enjoyable “Faoiseamh Faoistine” – as beautiful a song as you could want to hear – is the only song that is not traditional. That’s surprising, as its fluid lines sound like they’ve been honed and preserved across the years. Gerry O’Beirne, who plays guitar on two tracks here, has set to music a poem by the late poet and boatman Danny Sheehy about connecting land and sea.
Nic Amhlaoibh’s name means ‘sea maiden’ and the sea is the main theme connecting these six songs. “Air Failirinn Iù” is a lament told from the perspective of a woman whose love has drowned and she sings as if she is watching it happen. Here Julie Fowlis adds vocals and the subtle drone of violin and cello aid the tone. “Sweet Kingswilliamtown” was written by a passenger on the Titanic, who survived that trip, but became the last American soldier to be killed in the first World war.
In a nifty link, that song includes the words “Blackwater’s side”, which may be why the following track is the classic “Blackwaterside,” covered by so many and always gorgeous. Here Nic Amhlaoibh lets more emotion into her singing.
The accompaniment is highly understated: tenderly picked guitar on the first track, along with Ebow, fiddle, and keys; a glacially paced piano on the fourth, and guitars and keys on “Blackwaterside.” Each half ends with a distinct change of pace. On the wishing-well Kerry song “Tá Na Báid Go Doimhin Sa Bhfarraige / Sios Cois Na Trá Agus Amach Chun Na Farraige” (I told you it was long…) which seems to speed up as it goes along, Nic Amhlaoibh picks up her whistle, joining accordion and guitar for a reel at the end; while the final track sees her slow right down, accompanied only by a yaybahar. This Turkish-based instrument makes a haunting drone-like sound and is a so rare that it isn’t built commercially. Here her husband plays a home-made version that adds mystery to a song about a woman captured by fairies.
This superbly-curated set of six songs should appeal to anyone who enjoys traditional Irish music, as it encapsulates its strengths so well.
Self-released – http://www.muireann.ie