New music will make your smiling Irish eyes go wide with wonder THE GREENING OF AMERICA

March 17, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Because much of it is sold around St. Patrick's Day, many Americans think of Irish music strictly as holiday fare, like carols at Christmas or Sousa marches on the Fourth of July.

After all, how could green beer taste authentic without "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" playing in the background?

That's not the way the Irish look at it, of course.

But then, Tin Pan Alley tripe like "A Little Bit of Heaven (Sure They Call It Ireland)" is no closer to real Irish music than green-dyed Miller is to Guinness draught.

These days, the Irish music scene includes everyone from rock megastars such as U2 to devoted traditionalists, such as the Chieftains. In fact, the folk scene (which these days includes quite a few American-born musicians) is one of the liveliest and most innovative in Europe, running the gamut from age-old reels to synth-savvy new-age sounds. Here's a sampling:

CELTIC ODYSSEY

Various Artists (Narada 63912)

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to convey the range and breadth of contemporary Irish folk music on a single album, but "Celtic Odyssey" comes mighty close. Tastefully selected and intelligently sequenced, this compilation includes Irish, Scots and American offerings and draws from some of the biggest names in Celtic music -- including Altan, Sileas, Relativity and Moving Hearts. But the album's greatest strength is the way it underscores the continuity of Celtic music. Whether the performance is as quiet as Sileas' a capella "Puirt a Beul" or as fiery as Altan's "Donal Agus Morag," the music remains entrancing (even if the vocals are all in Gaelic).

ROCKY ROAD

The Young Dubliners

(Scotti Bros. 72392 75420)

Although the name suggests some sort of bond to the legendary pub group of the '60s, the Young Dubliners are in fact an L.A.-based rock group whose sound has less in common with the original Dubliners than with the eclectic pop approach of Black 47. Consequently, the closest "Rocky Road" gets to traditional Irish fare is in its spirited rendition of "The Rocky Road to Dublin." It's hard to complain about guitar pop as spirited as "Last House on the Street" or "Holy Ground."

COME BACK TO ERIN & OTHER IRISH LOVE SONGS

Various Artists

(Columbia/Legacy 53630)

Even though many of the songs collected here -- "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen," "Come Back to Erin" and "Peggy" -- are more the product of American enterprise than of Irish tradition, the performances are classic examples of sweet-voiced Irish ballad singing.

ISLAND ANGEL

Altan (Green Linnet 11372)

Perhaps the most acclaimed traditional band of its generation, Altan combines virtuoso-quality fiddle and flute work with an unfailing sense of song presentation. As a result, "Island Angel" moves easily from a rollicking set of reels, such as "Humours of Andytown/Kylebrack Rambler/The Gladstone," to a ballad as heart-breakingly beautiful as "Brid Og Ni Mhaille." Moreover, Altan adds extra luster to these melodies by fleshing them out with such rich, pop-savvy settings that "An Cailin Gaelach" could pass for a Nanci Griffith number, while their rendition of the children's song "Dulaman" is so cleverly arranged, it makes even the Clannad version seem drab.

SHADOW TIME

Nightnoise (Windham Hill 11130)

With a pedigree that includes the Bothy Band and Relativity, the members of Nightnoise clearly have deep roots in traditional Celtic music. But the sound offered on "Shadow of Time" tends less toward old-time jigs and reels than to moody, atmospheric pieces that fall somewhere between the instrumental interplay of Acoustic Alchemy and the lush soundscapes of Clannad. Its best moments, though, are when Triona Ni Dhomhnaill takes the lead vocally.

EILEEN IVERS

Eileen Ivers (Green Linnet 1139)

Ever since she won her seventh All-Ireland championship in 1984 (at the ripe old age of 19), Eileen Ivers has been considered a talent to watch. But "Eileen Ivers" establishes the Bronx-born fiddler as a true master of her craft, capable of astonishing power and lyricism. Not only does she throw sparks on dance tunes, she brings impressive grace to such ballads as "Magh Seola." But if you really want to hear how good she is, cue up "Pachelbel's Frolics" and listen to how easily she turns a melodic cliche into a dazzling show-stopper.

STRAIGHT OUTTA IRELAND

VOLUME II

Various Artists

(Scotti Bros. 72392 75425)

Thanks to the success of U2, Sinead O'Connor and the Cranberries, the Irish rock scene is more vital than ever these days, and "Straight Outta Ireland, Volume II" showcases some of the country's brighter up-and-comers. Probably the best of these is An Emotional Fish, whose "That Girl and the Slow Train" combines the drama of U2's early work with the well-managed dynamics of INXS' best. Equally impressive, though, is the raucous, reverb-drenched roar of Candy Apple Red's "Icicle Falls," the soulful drama of Shaine's "Dream Town," and the clever techno-goes-traditional twist of "I'm In Love With Mother Nature" by Zrazy.

WRAP THE GREEN FLAG

The Clancy Brothers

with Tommy Makem

(Columbia/Legacy 48866)

No group did more to interest American listeners in real Irish music than the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem. "Wrap the Green Flag: Favorites of the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem" isn't quite the best-of its title suggests, but it does include some memorable performances, including "Fare Thee Well Enniskillen" and the lovely "Jennifer Gentle." But for many listeners, the real appeal of this collection will be rousing rebel songs such as "Johnson's Motor Car" and "A Nation Once Again."

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