Emerald Isle is musical gem Gael force: Irish folk sound thrives among audiences primed by rock.

March 16, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It used to be that the phrase "Irish music" was understood by most Americans to mean one thing: folk music. Whether it was rollicking rebel songs sung by the Clancy Brothers or a spirited reel uncorked by a local ceili band, those traditional tunes were all anybody ever heard from Irish musicians particularly on St. Patrick's Day.

Now, that's not at all the case. Thanks to the worldwide success of bands such as U2, the Cranberries and Hothouse Flowers, rock and roll has become Ireland's best-known sound. And, with up-and-coming acts like Whipping Boy, Therapy? and Gavin Friday garnering greater attention, the Emerald Isle may even overshadow England as a major European music scene.

That may be a boon for the Irish recording industry, but it's of no use to those American listeners looking for a touch of the auld sod on St. Paddy's Day. Fortunately, the boom in Irish rock hasn't shut down the traditional music scene but it certainly has broadened its borders.

Take the current Clannad album, for example. Even though the better part of "Lore" (Atlantic 82753) is sung in Gaelic and has strong roots in Irish folk music, the album's sound is anything but traditional. From the synth-fired pulse of "Alasdair MacColla" to the high-gloss balladry of "Farewell Love," Clannad comes across less as a Donegal folk combo than a state-of-the-art international pop act.

Granted, that's hardly a new development; Clannad has been a pop power in Europe since 1982, when the haunting "Harry's Game" became an international best seller (though the single had its biggest impact here through a Volkswagen ad). "Lore" is in many ways Clannad's most pop-savvy effort yet, thanks to upbeat, tuneful fare like "Seanchas," a jazzy, dramatic number catchy enough to get even non-Gaels singing along.

But as much as the group's lush vocal harmonies and tasteful rock instrumentation add a pop sheen to the material, what ultimately makes Clannad special is the way the group folds traditional Irish flavor into its modern approach. "From Your Heart" balances electric guitar and tin whistle over a funky drum beat, while "Croi Croga" mixes monk-like choral work with slow-percolating percussion to create an aural atmosphere similar to the exotic tapestry of Deep Forest's sound.

Lush vocal harmonies have long been a hallmark of Clannad's work, and seemed at first a radical departure from the classic monophony of traditional sean nos (Gaelic old-style) singing. Now, however, quite a few Irish groups exploit the power of vocal harmony.

Anuna, in fact, takes a full-blown choral approach to its music, and there are moments on "Invocation" (Celtic Heartbeat/Atlantic that have more in common with the sound of church choirs than ceili bands. Passages in "Sleepsong" recall the stately austerity of Ralph Vaughan Williams' vocal works, while the stark soprano melody of "Quis Est Deus" evokes the monastic sanctity of Medieval church music.

As much as Anuna's music harks back to the sound of the church, "Invocation" also has a strong secular side. There's a lively lilt to the folk-song cadences of "Siuil a Ruin," a strong sense of dance rhythms in the tongue-twisting vocal ornamentation of "Hin Barra" and an irresistible energy to the fiddle, pipes and percussion that fire "Firi Na Greine/The Rising of the Sun."

But if you really want to hear how lively the blend of choral singing and Irish instrumental music can be, get ahold of the Bill Whelan album "Riverdance: Music from the Show" (Celtic Heartbeat/Atlantic 82816). Drawn from the popular stage production, "Riverdance" boasts enough ambition and production numbers to be described as "Irish Folk Music Goes Broadway."

Yet for all its flashy step-dancing and showy orchestration, Whelan has done nothing to dilute the traditional flavor of Irish music. It helps that Whelan's tunes fit the character of Irish folk music perfectly, but the album ensures that those elements come across convincingly by augmenting the Riverdance Orchestra with a host of big-name Irish musicians, including Anuna, uilleann piper Davy Spillane, accordionist Martin O'Connor and fiddler Eileen Ivers.

Ivers virtually steals the show with the skittering virtuosity of "American Wake (The Nova Scotia Set)," which amplifies the rhythmic intensity of Irish dance music to near-lethal levels (insist on sitting still through this and you may injure yourself). That won't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with her work, though, for this young American has been knocking listeners on their collective ear for years.

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