The phrase “world music” has come to be associated in my mind with a certain sound, which can basically be summed up as too much soprano sax and too many cutesy penny whistles. (I admit, I can be something of a Celtic music curmudgeon.)
By contrast, Iona’s music is almost startlingly stark.
“Stark” in this case should not be confused with simple: Iona’s music is actually delightfully complex and multi-layered. At the same time, it has the pared-down elegant lines of Shaker furniture. You can hear the musical voice of each musician in this group while simultaneously admiring the tightness of their ensemble playing. One gets the sense that Iona not only enjoys playing for their fans, they enjoy playing for each other. One also gets the impression that Iona considers their fans to be personal friends, and that these friends do a lot of drinking and dancing.
Dancing is what I think of when I listen to these tunes — also walking, running, working, and chasing rabbits (or maybe just small children). These songs never stagnate; never get mired down in a single rhythm. Take the first song on the first CD, “The Emigrant’s Song,” which starts out on a rather plaintive note with a wistful fiddle tune, then moves into a wonderfully rich harmony of voices, and then, with a few notes of a fiddle, changes again, but this time into a pair of lively fiddle tunes before ending on a repetition of the vocal harmony.
This double CD celebrates IONA’s 20th anniversary, but this is a band which definitely has not stopped growing. The names of the two CDs give you an idea of how this band views what they do: “New Growth,” the first disk, offers 11 new tracks, while “Deep Roots,” the second disk, is a reissue of 15 digitally remastered tracks from the previous five albums.
There isn’t a weak recording on either CD, but two more tracks on the first CD are worth mentioning as standouts. Track four on the first disk starts out with a slow waltzing “Lakes of Pontchartrain” but then, following a bass guitar riff, unexpectedly dives into a jazzed-up rendition of “Lily of the West” which sounds as if it could be the soundtrack to some Depression-era story of star-crossed lovers as scripted by John Steinbeck. The last track on the CD is a set with which Iona traditionally ends their performances, and you can hear why. It begins with “The Real Old Mountain Dew” which then launches into a fiddle tune that grows increasingly manic with every swig, um, refrain.
Iona’s music reminds you why it’s called “roots music.” It’s still alive and growing.
You can purchase this double CD or listen to samples on Iona’s official Web site.
(Barnaby Productions, 2006)