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Tough times require tough-minded art

Tipperary-born Deirdre Scanlan, Casey's successor as Solas's lead vocalist, also sang conscience-pricking songs, such as Antje Duvekot's "Black Annis" and Tom Waits's "Georgia Lee," each about a cruel loss of innocence by a child or adolescent preyed on or neglected by adults. Though these two songs deftly employ metaphor and poetic obliqueness to avoid blunt, balky editorializing, they are nevertheless meant to prod the apathetic, the complacent, and the timorous.

On Solas's new album "The Turning Tide," Kilkenny native Mairead Phelan, the band's current lead vocalist, sings three songs of indignation or outrage partly expressed through biblical imagery and references.

Nowhere is that more powerfully in evidence than in "Sorry," composed by Scottish singer Karine Polwart. The album's most assured song interpretation by Phelan, it contains this indicting chorus: "For you may lay down your guilt on the altar / You may nail your remorse to the cross / But it's not enough these days to say sorry / No, sorry won't pay for this loss." Other references to "blood on your hands" and "confess to the crime" suggest a retrial and recrucifixion of Christ by those charged with conveying his precepts but willfully ignoring them themselves. This song takes on greater pertinence and stokes greater anger in light of new revelations about child abuse, negligent oversight, and cover-up in the Catholic Church. Probably prompting the album's title is this line: "No, sorry won't turn back the tide." Solas and, in particular, Phelan invest this song with the unflinching, quietly building fervor it deserves.

In his intriguingly allusive song "A Girl in the War," Josh Ritter uses two biblical characters, the apostles Peter and Paul, to discuss the suspension of the gospel and its rules in time of war. Clever wordplay surfaces when Paul tells Peter to "rock yourself a little harder" ("Peter" comes from the Latin word "petra," meaning rock) and "pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire," a line urging more action and less talk. A menacing dragon and flaming feet may be the only way to get Peter--and us--moving. Folded within that plea to overcome paralytic helplessness is a love story with political implications: "I gotta girl in the war, man, I wonder what it is we done." This is a call to action song without bullhorn browbeating, and Phelan's breathy, whispered, low-register singing style suits the temper of the lyrics.

The one song interpretation that does not work on the album is "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Composer Bruce Springsteen took his inspiration from John Steinbeck's classic 1939 novel "The Grapes of Wrath" and John Ford's equally classic 1940 film of it, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. This song also carries a biblical reference: "Waitin' for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last." But the soul-suffocating struggle described in Springsteen's song, linking Dust Bowl-era hardship with more recent economic distress ("Shelter line stretchin' round the corner / Welcome to the new world order"), gets glossed in Phelan's airily delivered vocal and lost in relatively dense instrumentation.

The album's other songs are Richard Thompson's "The Ditching Boy" ("The Poor Ditching Boy" was the full title on Thompson's 1972 album "Henry the Human Fly"), "A Sailor's Life" (found on "Unhalfbricking," the 1969 album by Fairport Convention, featuring Richard Thompson), and "Sadhbh Ni Bhruineallaigh," a humorous song in Irish about a boatman asking a young woman to elope with him that was previously recorded by Galway singers Lasairfhiona Ni Chonaola and Joe Heaney. All are ably sung by Phelan with stout support from her bandmates.

Instrumentally, Solas still performs with astonishing skill and imagination. The album-opening "Hugo's Big Reel," composed by Seamus Egan, reminds us that the band has preciously few peers in unpacking a melody. Egan on nylon guitar, tenor banjo, flute, whistles, mandolin, and bodhran, Winifred Horan on fiddle, Mick McAuley on button accordion, and Eamon McElholm on guitar and piano constitute a tuneful tour de force. Originality is the common thread in McElhom's inventive "The Crows of Killimer / Box Reel #2 / Boys of Malin / The Opera House," Horan's swinging "A Waltz for Mairead" that features a tight interlacing of fiddle and mandolin, McAuley's stirring "Trip to Kareol," and two more Egan tunes, the percussive "Grady Fernando Comes to Town" and the contemplative "A Tune for Roan."

In many ways, this is a bold, even courageous album for Solas. All nine tunes were composed by band members, and the songs "Sorry," "A Girl in the War," and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (despite the miscalculation in its treatment) confront the troubles of today without tepidity or timidity. After nearly 15 years of recording and touring, the band continues to take creative risks. "The Turning Tide" provides ample proof of that, fortifying Solas's reputation as an Irish traditional band still making a difference.

The album (cat. no. 7-4530-2) is on Compass Records, 916 19th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37212, 615-320-7672, www.compassrecords.com.

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