Hummingbird HBCD0030; 65 minutes; 2002
News of the imminence of this release had traditional purists heading to the shed to sharpen their hatchets, fearful that the multifaceted Sinéad was about to wreak havoc upon one of Ireland’s most cherished cultural traditions. Sean-nós, meaning ‘old-style’, is a form of unaccompanied singing in the Irish still found in those areas where the language is strongest (Donegal, Connemara, West Cork and West Kerry) and Sinéad’s playful, if provocative, addition of the word ‘nua’ (‘new’) suggested some terrible reinvention of the tradition.
Purists, fret ye not! This album has about as much to do with sean-nós as an okapi with a fruit machine. For Sinéad, peeking perkily on a the cover like a little pink pixie, aims her attention at a selection of well-known Irish ballads (the likes of Her Mantle So Green, The Parting Glass and The Moorlough Shore) and only targets two songs in Irish (Óró and Báidín Fhellimí). And it’s exactly how you would expect her to approach them, using a variety of consummate musicians, Christy Moore as a guest singer, all her customary vocal techniques including the odd inappropriate whoop, and no less than four producers (including herself) to provide the necessary studio dressing. At its worst (the John Bon Jovi meets Beth Gibbons version of My Lagan Love) it’s murderous – at its best (the duet with Moore on Lord Baker) it’s fabulous.
Ultimately, because Sinéad is, of course, Sinéad (and all power to her elbows for being so), there’s plenty both to delight and exasperate. The liner notes are especially illuminating, not least her belief that The Singing Bird, a fundamental love song, is about the glory of ‘Jah’, though somewhat puzzling are the accompanying photographs – the lyrics of Molly Malone, the archetypal Dublin street ballad, are superimposed over a picture of a London bus in Brixton!
For a good introduction to the real sean-nós tradition try these albums:
Joe Heaney – The Road from Connemara (Topic/Cló Iar-Chonnachta)
Lillis Ó Laoire – Bláth Gach Géag dá dTíg (Cló Iar-Chonnachta)
Various – Amhrán ar an Sean-Nós (RTÉ)
This review by Geoff Wallis was originally written for Songlines magazine – www.songlines.co.uk.
For more information about Hummingbird Records – www.hummingbirdrecords.com.
And, if you really do need to know more about Sinéad – www.sineadoconnor.com.