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Trad with song-writing flair

Kern's debut is "The False Deceiver."

By Daniel Neely

From County Louth, Kern is a traditional group with a polished, contemporary touch. The group’s members are Brendan McCreanor (uilleann pipes and whistles), Barry Kieran (fiddle), and SJ McArdle (vocals, guitars, mandolin & harmonica), and they’ve recently launched their debut album “The False Deceiver,” which takes top-shelf playing and combines it with great songwriting and interpretation. The results are outstanding. The addition of guests Eamonn Moloney (bodhrán) and Trevor Hutchinson (bass; also, the album’s producer) add to the overall sound and round out a very solid offering.

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“The False Deceiver” features a lovely balance of song and instrumental tracks. “Misty,” an instrumental and the album’s opener, begins with the air “Fingal’s Weeping,” before launching into the jig “Mist on the Mountain,” the slip jig “Farewell to Whalley Range,” and then the jig “Mist on the Meadow.” As the track evolves, the arrangement’s texture begins to accumulate weight and gather speed, the instruments weave in and out to great effect. The result is a powerful and very listenable track. The approach on “Ale” is similar. It features three reels – “Ale Is Dear” / “Teampall An Ghleanntáin” / “Crooked Road to Dublin” – and again moves between tempos and instrumentations, albeit with a bit more intensity.

One of the standout instrumental tracks for me is “Aga,” which starts with “Heaven’s Gate,” a tune with a bit of an “old timey" vibe that was originally used in a 1980 western of the same name that starred Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, and John Hurt. (The movie was reviled when it first came out, but a director’s cut was released as part of the Criterion Collection in 2012 and it brought about a positive critical reassessment.) It’s an interesting and offbeat choice that precedes a lively pair polkas, the first of which, we learn from the liner notes, was originally a strathspey. Together, the three make for a nice combination.

The albums vocal tracks are also quite lovely. McArdle’s voice has a breathy gruffness to it that is commanding without being loud, and it sets a strong tone. “The Hard Wind,” a McArdle original, is a lively, cutting song about Irish soldiers who returned to Ireland after World War I to acrimony and indifference. The arrangement is well constructed and to the group’s great credit, they don’t try to do too much with it – really, they’ve let the song stand on its own, which enhances McArdle’s work and complements the song’s poignancy. The same can be said of the group’s approach on “Rocks of Bonnie Gibraltar,” which has a familiar “pubby” quality in its approach, but which is much more exacting in its execution.

In contrast, the band takes a more expansive approach to “Haggard Floor.” There, thick, layered textures are used to help the song unfold, and evoke create a heady ambiance. The same happens on “William Taylor,” which is another standout. The liner notes explain that three different sources representing three very different takes on the song were compiled for the new version presented here. The group has done a marvelous job of creating an appropriately moody instrumental arrangement, which matches McArdle’s vocal intensity. One of the interesting things about this track is that the three different versions of the song came from the same source, a circumstance that speaks to the mutability of oral transmission. The tune ends with “The Tempest,” a reel which I think appropriately pulls the shade on a great track and a compelling album.

Understated guitar playing, paired with lonesome touches on the fiddle, and tightly controlled piping make “The False Deceiver” an intriguing release. Those interested in trad music that crosses over into singer/songwriter territory will find this album particularly attractive, but its accessibility will have easy appeal to general audiences. Thumbs up! For more info, visit