By Daniel Neely
In the player this week is Aoife Blake’s new album “The Green Hills.” Originally from Galway but now living in Cork, Blake is a harpist, fiddler, and singer whose album features “new solo harp arrangements of traditional tunes and songs and ensemble tracks featuring Ryan McAuley (five string banjo), Caolán Keogh (fiddle), Ciara O'Leary Fitzpatrick (concertina) and Ultan Lavery (fiddle).” With them, she explores Irish, Scottish, and old-time Appalachian musics in a harp-led approach that yields a beautiful and distinctive sound. This is a strong album with some really lovely tracks, so let’s pick out a few, have a listen, and get to know “The Green Hills” better.
Let me begin by saying that the stylistic diversity here yields some nice variety. The tracks that feature the jigs and the reels reveal Blake’s strong musicianship and understanding of traditional music. She sound brilliant on the Irish hornpipes “Bobby Casey’s / Callaghan’s,” and the same on “Wee Carrie / The Hut on Staffin Island” / The Lass O’Gowrie,” a set of tunes from Scotland. Her accompaniment, Fitzpatrick on the former and Fitzpatrick with Keogh on the latter, blend wonderfully.
But the tracks that I think stand out especially are the ones where she extends her music beyond straight dance tunes. A great example of this is “How are Things in Glocca Morra?”
A very popular song from the 1947 Broadway show “Finian’s Rainbow,” Blake’s arrangement is based on André Previn’s solo piano recording. In it, she’s managed to capture the harmonic nuance and depth of Previn’s take, while simultaneously “translating” it to harp. The programmatic touches shimmer against the absolute passages, all of which contributes to a magnificent whole.
“Golden Ticket” is another fine example.
Here, Blake dips into her Appalachian side, with McAuley & Keogh joining her. Blake starts off the track frailing, as if playing the banjo on the harp (a phrase that will surely send some readers into a paroxysm of rage). McAuley’s own banjo playing complements Blake’s beautifully, as does Keogh’s fiddle, but together the three lay down a cool, low key groove that would be most welcome late in an all-night session. This is not an overplayed approach at “crossing over” into old time music, it’s a carefully considered blend that works well.
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Finally, Blake turns out a couple of lovely songs here as well, “An Ciarraioch Mallaithe” and this, “Lambs on the Green Hills.”
A song that has been recorded by many (including, as she mentions in her liner notes, Pauline Scanlon and the Johnstons), it’s a well-chosen selection that once again adds variety and provides another take on the expansiveness of Blake’s musicality. Her voice is smooth with a pleasing warmth that works well against the sound of her harp, and it’s nested in a restrained, tasteful arrangement that gently brings out the song’s lush harmonies.
“The Green Hills” is an album that will definitely appeal to traditional music fans. Members of the harp fellowship will surely find much to enjoy, but it’s Blake’s creative vision that I think will garner this album the broad listenership it deserves. Her singing and playing are excellent, and she’s surrounded herself with collaborators who facilitate her musical direction and enhance it with their contributions. Take this one out for a spin, you’ll be happy you did. To learn more, visit www.aoifeblakemusic.com.