Songlines is Casey’s solo debut album, after her work with the Irish American traditional group Solas. It is produced by Solas founder Seamus Egan (tin whistle, flutes) with assistance from fellow band members Winifred Horan (fiddle) and John Doyle (guitar), as well as assorted others on bass, cello and various percussion. Since leaving the band, Casey has turned up on several interesting recordings and performed with Karen Matheson of Capercaillie on several occasions. I’ve been a long time fan of Solas, who won me over almost immediately in a live performance in a small club in New York in the mid-1990s. I was really struck by both Casey’s unique vocals and the band’s restrained, sophisticated arrangements, so I was very eager to review this album. By and large it lived up to my high expectations.
The disc opens with the humorous “Roger the Miller,” telling the story of a greedy suitor who loses out when he demands a grey mare along with a young woman and her dowry. The disc turns somber with the story of a woman whose lover has died, and who induces a miscarriage in despair. Both Casey’s delicate voice and Horan’s subtle fiddle are very effective here. This tune is as notable for its pauses as it is for the vocal and instrumental accompaniment.
By the third track we move from sarcasm and despair to the political sphere with Ewan McColl’s anthem to the crushing discontent of modernity, “Ballad of Accounting.” Written in 1964, it’s as fresh and angry as ever, with Casey giving a fiery delivery with staccato guitar accompaniment. This discontented theme continues with “Shamrock Shore,” a nineteenth century diatribe against oppression, here given a quiet and restrained treatment. The political becomes personal with the next number, a tale of sexual oppression thwarted, when a young woman who tricks a troupe of soldiers bent on a good time by disguising herself as a man, showing up as she has agreed — and narrowly escaping. The themes of Songlines are dark and ridden with conflict, showing the restless, discontented aspects of Casey’s soul. No tourist music here, and not a lot of frenzied partying either. It’s another side of Irish music than what we hear and shows Casey maturing as an artist.
The discontent continues with a tale of love parted by forced emigration in “An Buachaillín Bán.” This is a lovely song, again delivered quite effectively, with just the right balance of tenderness and anger conveyed in Casey’s vocals. Conflict returns with “The Creggan White Hare” as a witch becomes a hare that always manages to evade the hunter’s pursuit, a tale of triumph that picks up the pace. W.B. Yeats “Tale of Wander Aengus” continues along supernatural lines, as forlorn Aengus wanders the hills in search of the fairy woman who steals his heart. It’s sung with a quiet longing that makes your heart ache, again showing Horan to be a master of the slow, emotive songs, blending fiddle and voice very well.
Jean Ritchie’s “One I love” expresses sad determination to continue with a match despite the man’s lack of means. This is a really lovely rendition of this song from the Appalachians. Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down” follows, one of the definite folk hits of recent years, although I felt Casey’s version here was a bit strident. The final number returns to the theme of the importance of pursuing love despite economic and class distinctions. I felt that this song, with more of the long lyrical phrases that one finds in Irish sean nos singing, would have been more effective if it had not been so close to “One I Love.” Songlines ends on a quiet note; love triumphs but the difficulties are central. With it’s very effective vocals and restless discontent, Songlines is perfect for a cloudy day when only the conflicted nature of life can soothe the weary soul. It’s not recommended as background for dinner or a date. Indeed the cover art portrays Casey in a shaded wood, alongside a painting of a decaying log in a forest …
Songlines presents Casey’s considerable vocal talents and excellent sense for what songs work with her voice in the context of understated, sophisticated instrumental accompaniments. It’s a great solo debut, partly because it’s unrelenting sense of the difficult aspects of life sets it apart from so many female vocalists, particularly those with delicate voices. That said, I want more instrumentals to give Casey’s voice a context that seems to be missing. Several of the songs do have some great, short instrumental interludes, but often they are presented with “accompaniment,” without any ornamentation beyond that necessary to get Casey through the songs. Don’t get me wrong, the instrumental work on this album is well very done, but I wanted more than accompaniment. To me, Casey’s fine voice and intimate delivery deserves more than mere accompaniment; the instrumental segments should be up to the caliber of the singing, in length as well as in form, if only to avoid a “low budget” feel that someone couldn’t afford to waste any time on anything but the soloist. Mind you, I’m not insisting on a Solas album, although they really work for me, but I wanted more of a good thing.
If you are a fan of Solas’s early work, or if you’ve heard Karan Casey in one of her guest spots on other albums, you know why you will love Songlines. She’s simply got an amazing voice that is unique among Irish singers. I suspect this somber album will also work for those of us who long for more and find tales of like-minded, discontented types soothing. It certainly works for me, and I look forward to hearing Casey’s more recent work.