Seamus Egan has released his first solo album in 23 years.
By Daniel Neely
Seamus Egan is a musician whose work is likely familiar to many, many readers of this column. Whether you know him through Green Fields of America (or his work with Mick Moloney and Eugene O’Donnell), as a founding member of the supergroup Solas, at music camps, through Brian O’Donovan’s “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” (for which he is music director), or via his influential solo work, Egan’s music has likely spoken to you directly at some point. (And don’t worry, if you’re not a trad music initiate reading this, you are still likely to know his music regardless – he did the soundtrack for the renowned fillum “The Brothers McMullen” and with Sarah McLachlan and Dave Merenda co-wrote “I’ll Remember You,” the touching song from the ASPCA’s incredibly memorable advertising campaigns; www.aspca.org.)
Later on this month, Egan will release “Early Bright,” his first solo album in 23 years. It’s an auspicious moment, not only in Egan’s musical life, but for modern Irish music in general, and for it, he’s enlisted the help of Kyle Sanna (guitar, piano, lap steel), Owen Marshall (bouzouki, harmonium), Moira Smiley (piano accordion) and Joe Philips (bass). Also appearing is the Fretless String Quartet (Eric Wright, cello; Trent Freeman & Karrnnel Sawitsky, violins; and Ben Plotnick, viola) playing arrangements by Maeve Gilchrist.
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What Egan’s put together here is incredible. The music is dynamic and shifting, and brings the listener on an adventure without words. Rhythms, textures and moods shift from track to track, and listening over the record a few times I never feel I came close to getting the same “look” twice. Everything works here on a track-by-track basis, but I found the whole incredibly cohesive as well. It’s well thought out, brilliantly executed, and a delight to listen to.
Although every track has something to recommend it, there are a few that jump out immediately. The album opens with “Early Bright,” a short impressionist set piece that consists of an abstract ethereal piano playing over a record’s lock groove. Its mood suggests an awakening, and it’s a sound that returns in slightly different presentations throughout the album, acting as something of a leitmotif recalling the album’s title. At the outset, though, “Early Bright” simply transitions into “6 Then 5,” a groovy banjo-centric track that bounces along brightly. Egan’s playing here – his pacing, tone, and swing – is energetic and yet perfectly restrained. He’s not trying to do too much, and yet, he covers a lot of ground. It’s a great track.
The ominously titled “Welcome to Orwell” is again really interesting. Egan’s mesmerizing arrangement begins fairly simply and swings along, building steam until the bass enters, adding a rhythmic element that drives the tune till track’s end. The low whistle brings depth and comes at a time, not only within the track but in the album’s overall trajectory, that seems very natural. The low whistle also figures prominently in “Tournesol,” which comes later on in the album. It opens with the “Early Bright” leitmotif and has a lovely bounce. The arrangement moves from melody to melody and tempo to tempo with astonishing ease, and is one of the album’s finest tracks.
“Simon Nally Hunt the Buck” begins simply, with intertwined mandolin and guitar playing together in almost baroque fashion. However, about halfway through the string quartet enters, building tension that resolves and shifts to something different by track’s end. It works wonderfully well – Gilchrist’s string writing is brilliant and adds so much to this one.
The baroque mood of “Simon Nally” is echoed in the album’s penultimate track, “Two Little Ducks.” Egan’s mandolin playing stands out here – his phrasing and articulation are clean and relaxed and blend perfectly with Sanna’s brilliant guitar playing. For me, it’s one of the album’s highlights.
“Early Bright” is a truly brilliant album. Egan’s brought decades worth of experience to bear here, and the results are tip top. In addition, the supporting cast he’s brought in to help realize his vision is incredibly well chosen, and I find Sanna’s role particularly interesting. Conceptually, this album in some ways reminds me of the excellent (and highly recommended) albums he made with fiddle player Dana Lyn, including “The Hare Said a Prayer to the Rainbow” and “Coral Suite.” Like Egan & co., Lyn & Sanna drew from the palette of Irish traditional music – the rhythms, the melodic sensibility, the sounds – and used these constituent elements to create something new and exciting that fans of traditional music people will find easily relatable.
However, unlike Lyn & Sanna, who largely made well known traditional melodies the basis for their explorations, virtually all of “Early and Bright’s” material is original. This affords Egan a different angle on creativity. While he draws from a similar palette, one Sanna has an intuitive sense for, Egan paints a completely different picture. His writing is very, very strong and he’s able to convey a deep sense of introspection and stillness through it. His own sophisticated and nuanced playing, as well as that of his cohort (and that of Sanna in particular), is really able to shine and bring his thoughtful and deeply engaging arrangements to great life.
This isn’t pure drop music. Rather, it’s the music of an innovator taking his own path forward. Egan’s done something very special here – his vision is fabulous and will surely turn heads in the coming year. Keep your ears open for “Early and Bright,” it’s definitely one to check out, learn more at www.seamuseganproject.com.