april 2008

Sail Away

by Billy Altmann


Karan Casey

Lest anyone think there's even an ounce of hyperbolic blarney to the statement that singer Karan Casey is one of the brightest lights on the contemporary Celtic music scene, then perhaps the best way to begin discussing her latest CD Ships In The Forest is to say that her renditions here of "Black is the Colour (of My True Love's Hair)" and "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" will have you re-thinking songs you were sure you never wanted hear again in this and maybe even a few yet-to-come lifetimes. That she's even thought of coming at these moldy fig folk staples is stunning enough; that, reaching deep inside these tunes' stark melodies and imagery, she breathes into them not only new, but vibrant life, is fairly miraculous.

Of course, it is precisely the unfettered forthrightness that she brings to her work that has helped make Waterford-born Casey stand out ever since her mid-1990s debut days as vocalist for Solas, the groundbreakingly forward-thinking Irish-American Celtic band led by Seamus Egan. Now back living in Ireland, Casey's solo career took an unexpected turn when she departed from singing other people's material and herself wrote most of 2005's Chasing The Sun. Significantly, though, as exemplified by "Black is the Colour," her return to primarily traditional sources for this new collection finds her clearly having learned from the experience, as time and again she gets to the emotional core of the material with disarming clarity of purpose.

And there is plenty of purpose on a variety of levels operating here. With so much war and national misery in the world right now, Casey contrasts the aforementioned "Johnny" with Joni Mitchell's 1969 Vietnam lament "The Fiddle and the Drum," and along with "Dunlavin Green" (about a 1798 massacre in Ireland") and "Erin's Lovely Home" (about the Irish famine of 1847 leading to some dashed immigrant's dreams), she skillfully draws century-spanning connecting dots of ever-applicable hard truths.

Speaking of skillful, it should be noted that Casey's gentle yet powerful vocals are expertly framed by producer/keyboardist Donald Shaw and the small group of supportive musicians here—most notably Kate Ellis (cello), Casey's life partner Niall Vallely (concertina)—and, above all, his brother Caoimhin Vallely, whose evocative piano brings a distinct stateliness to many of these tracks. Yes, you can call this Celtic music if you wish; but far better to just hear it as music: plain and simple and beautiful. And that's no blarney, either.


Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024