Karan Casey. PHOTO BY AMELIA STEIN
Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
Slight shift of gears this week, folks. Recently, I’ve been listening to the great Karan Casey’s most recent release “Hieroglyphs That Tell The Tale.” It’s a really fabulous album from one of Irish music’s foremost interpreters of traditional song. However, her more recent work (and I think of her last album “Two More Hours” in particular) has really seen her reveal a great stylistic diversity and artistic openness, and this excellent album is continued step in that direction. It covers a great deal of musical ground and because it has the most mainstream appeal of any of her previous albums I think it’s a collection people will want to check out.
Fear not, trad lovers: “Hieroglyphs” does, of course, have something for you! “Sixteen Come Next Sunday,” a very old ballad that some will remember Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill singing with the Bothy Band in 1976, is in that category. Casey takes the song and puts it into a tight, contemporary-sounding arrangement that features Catriona McKay (harp), Innes White (mandolin), Niall Vallely (concertina), and Donald Shaw (keyboard) set over James MacKintosh’s shuffling drumming. Casey’s interpretation is awe inspiring and a model for how one might conceive of – and, more importantly, execute – traditional repertory consistent with current trends.
But as I suggested above the album’s strength lies in the diversity of its inspiration and there is so much there to hear. “Hollis Brown” is an excellent example. Written by Bob Dylan for his 1964 “The Times They Are A-Changing” album, it is a murder ballad that’s been given an urgent, magisterial arrangement, but one in which I don’t hear Dylan at all. Rather, with Casey at the center, I am more reminded of Dolly Parton’s work in tone and gravity, but of Casey alone in its delivery. The same might be said of “I’m Still Standing Here,” a song written by Janis Ian. Casey’s confident approach (with additional vocals by Maura O’Connell) communicates a complete understanding of the song’s meaning, giving lines like “see these lines upon my face / they’re a map of where I’ve been” and “see these bruises, see these scars? / Hieroglyphs that tell the tale” a rare gravity and sense of ownership that most singers don’t possess
Then there are songs like “Mary” (which was written by Patti Griffin and has additional vocals by Aoife O’Donovan) and “Down in the Glen” (a Casey original), which are slow, beautiful ballads that reflect on war and loss. While the former is a meditation on Jesus’s mother and the passing of life, the latter reflects on the stories of Julia Grennan and Elizabeth O’Farrell, two women who served during the Rising in 1916.
Casey’s tonal palette also draws from a modern blues sensibility, with her original “Hold On” (additional vocals provided by Niamh Dunne) drawing from that aesthetic. Her track “Man of God,” a protest song that interrogates the false profits of modern Christianity, carries that sort of stylistic sensibility as well. Both are very nice and not only highlight Casey’s seemingly effortless ability to shift between styles, but her ability to command them all.
“Hieroglyphs That Tell The Tale” is a nuanced, expressive album that I think puts Casey in her most brilliant light yet. Her backing band is incredible, the production is top class (hats off to Donald Shaw, of Capercaillie fame, for that), and the result is an eminently collection of tracks that I’m sure already has extremely wide appeal. It is very easy to imagine how songs from this album might find their way onto mainstream American radio. If you’re a fan of Casey or if you love great singing, rush out and hear this one (it’s available through Casey’s website and on major streaming platforms), you’ll be glad you did.
For those interested in seeing Casey in concert, know she will be playing at the Kilkenny Arts Festival with Sounds Like Freedom on August 15, and in the Concert Dome at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Drogheda on August 16. On October 6 she’ll be in Dublin’s National Concert Hall with Sounds Like Freedom, and then will tour the Northeast US with Childsplay in November. See karancasey.com for details.