Mick McAuley’s “Highs and Bellows” is a substantial album.
By Daniel Neely
In the player this week is musician, composer and songwriter Mick McAuley’s new album “Highs and Bellows.” A brilliant and tightly packed album of accordion music and songs, it captures McAuley’s outstanding musicianship and well-heeled artistic vision. It’s one lovers of trad music will want to check out.
McAuley, who is from Kilkenny, got his start playing whistle when he was 5 and took up the accordion when he was 9. As his talents developed so too did his reputation. He moved to London in 1991, was became a member of groups like Ron Kavana’s Alias band and “The Bucks” with Kavana, Terry Woods, and piper Paddy Keenan. He returned to Ireland in 1994 where he worked with the likes of Niamh Parsons’ Loose Connections, Karan Casey, Paul Brennan of Clannad, and Eurovision winner Eimear Quinn, but New York called and in the mid-1990s he found a home in its vibrant trad scene.
In the orbit of trad supergroup Solas at the time, McAuley was asked to join the band when John Williams, the group’s original accordionist, left the group. Starting with the critically acclaimed “The Words that Remain” (1998), McAuley would record and tour in support of nine Solas albums. In addition to his formidable work with the band during that time, he also recorded “An Ocean’s Breadth,” his solo debut, and a pair of albums with fiddler Winifred Horan, “Serenade” and “Sailing Back to You” (with guitarist Colm O Caoimh), all of which were received well by critics and fans.
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Now, McAuley’s back with his solo follow up (which features Colm O Caoimh) and there is much about it to recommend. The album is rife with powerful and expressive playing, something that is immediately evident from the opening notes of its first track, “Mayor Harrison’s Fedora / ….” There are lovely familiar tunes through the album, but if we dig a bit deeper, we find a rich variety of music that reveals McAuley’s artistry and the breath of his musical outlook.
For instance, the album features several McAuley originals. “The Ballycotton Jigs” includes three, “The Constellation Slide Set” includes two, and “The Fairy Set” includes one, each of which has the sort of familiarity that suggests they’ve been in the repertory for decades. One of his compositions I find particularly affecting is “Doireann’s Waltz,” an expressive and emotional melody that begins with a bit of a lonely touch and blossoms into something warm and inviting. It’s just lovely.
Then there are the forays into popular sounds outside outside the Irish tradition. “Domino,” a composition of Brazilian choro composer and musician Pixinguinha of Rio De Janeiro, and “Indiffèrence” is a 1940s French “valse musette” by composers Tony Murena & Josef Colombo. In addition to adding great variety to the album, they are both incredibly well executed and hint at the extent of McAuley’s talent.
Finally, there are the songs. McAuley has a wonderful, clear voice that lends itself well to the songs he’s chosen. “As I Roved Out” is a strong outing and one that will surely attract listeners, but “Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore” is the one I find particularly interesting. McAuley’s accordion and O Caoimh’s guitar provide a stark but evocative context for the song’s lyrics about leaving and longing for home and are a perfect complement to McAuley’s singing.
“Highs and Bellows” is a substantial album and one that will delight any fan of traditional Irish music. The playing is, of course, solid throughout, but McAuley has managed to create sufficient variety to make it interesting as a whole and then some. Solas fans will find it especially welcoming, as will accordion players, but everyone should take the opportunity to listen to this album and hear this important player at his finest. This is definitely one to add to the collection! To learn more and to buy the album, visit www.mickmcauley.com.