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Duet debut is absolutely stunning

Not since her last studio album with Solas in 1998, "The Words That Remain," and perhaps not since her first, dazzling solo debut in 1997, "Songlines," has Casey sounded in greater command of her voice and song interpretations than on "Exiles Return," made with an ideal partner, singer-guitarist John Doyle, the Irish Echo's Traditional Musician of the Year for 2009. With additional accompaniment from original Lunasa member Michael McGoldrick on flute and whistle and old-timey and Cajun pro Dirk Powell on banjo and double bass (he also produced the album), Casey and Doyle have released with little fanfare what is easily the most stunning trad album leading into this St. Patrick's Day season.

Unlike many Irish vocalists now active, Casey is equally comfortable and effective singing with a band (she and Solas sparked off each other's talent), with a single playing partner (Doyle in particular), and sean-nos.

Without any backing she delivers a trad song learned from Waterford resident singer Aine Ui Cheallaigh, "Out of the Window," with a depth of feeling and control of vibrato that are utterly spellbinding. Casey has this miraculous ability to inhabit, not just interpret, a song as if she were an empath experiencing every shard of emotion without slipping into emotionalism.

As listeners, we believe the characters she gives voice to, and the plight and pain she illuminates, just as we believe the complexity, ambivalence, and often sly wit behind the deceptively simple folk songs she sings.

The double entendres circulating in "Madam I'm a Darlin'" were described by the late Dublin singer and song collector Frank Harte as full of "Rabelaisian humor." May-December romance gets stinging treatment here: "Have you ever heard of cups and saucers / Rattling round in an old tin can / Have you ever heard of a fair young maiden / Married to an ugly gray auld man." (That put me in mind of what poet Sylvia Plath once said about the male apparatus: "turkey necks and turkey gizzards.") Some metaphors are just spot on. Doyle sings them here with a wryness matched by evocative guitar picking, such as the short descending run he splices between the lines "Oh, going to the well for a pail of water" and "Fetching it home to make some tea," which precede these hard-to-mistake lines: "She fell under and I fell over / All the game was above the knee." Casey adds to the sauciness by harmonizing on the chorus.

Reminiscent of the blazon tradition in poetry, "The Flower of Finae" is a song written by Irish patriot Thomas Davis that partly catalogs the various qualities of a beautiful woman: "her hair is like night," "her eyes like gray morning," and "her heart and her lips are as mild as May Day." In Irish balladry, this tradition frequently fuses with coded references to Ireland itself, often described as a beautiful woman amid a foreign threat, and Casey impeccably conveys these multiple layers of meaning. No one delivers political points with her poignancy and delicate persuasion, which she brings to another song of rueful rumination, "The Nightingale," where Doyle applies fine-brush shading on guitar to Casey's moving exploration of anti-war sentiment.

In "Sailing Off to the Yankee Land," Casey adopts a tone neither condoning nor condemning the need to leave Ireland for America. Economic privation is common in most unbidden emigration, and the lines "She's a most distressed and cursed nation / In this world that e'er was seen / All they're good for is process serving / In this little isle of green" reveal an embedded anger about a status quo conferring no status at all.

"The Bay of Biscay" is a haunting tale about a lover's apparition in a dream dispelled by the advent of dawn: "They kissed, embraced, and sorrowfully parted / Just as the cock he began to crow." The biblical trope is obvious, but Casey turns this familiar convention into fresh compassion through the confessional beauty of her voice.

Every song on which she sings lead captures the energy, humor, pathos, and umbrage heard in her singing with Solas and on her initial solo album. Back then, Casey would give her listeners a good swift kick in their conscience, urging them to wake up and smell the ruses of pols and plutocrats. Some of that piquant edge and deserved defiance bubbles up in "The Little Drummer Girl," "False Lover John," and "The False Lady," in which Doyle's singing and playing prove no less vital.

This album represents the best vocal performance from John Doyle to date. His lead singing on the David Wilde song "The Shipyard Slips" and the traditional ballad "Sally Grier" is quite compelling, and a compelling composition of his, the titular "Exiles Return," features Doyle's gift for vocal harmony with Casey's sterling lead singing.

The recording is an example not of "less is more" but of doing more with less. In execution and spirit, it's essentially two voices and guitar. What a staggeringly full, rich, detailed sound "Exiles Return" is from two titans of trad: Karan Casey and John Doyle. The pair's peak performance is cause for rejoicing, and, just ten weeks into this new year, "Exiles Return" seems certain to rank among the top albums of 2010.

The CD (cat. no. 7-4529-2) is on Compass Records, 916 19th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37212, 615-320-7672, www.compassrecords.com.

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