Landmarks (Atlantic 83083)
Why does contemporary Irish music touch such a chord with American listeners?
Admittedly, there has always been an audience for Irish music in America. From pop singers like Van Morrison and Sinead O'Connor to such traditional acts as the Clancy Brothers and the Chieftains, the spirit and vitality of Irish melodies have long attracted listeners on this side of the Atlantic.
Pass those melodies through the filter of New Age and world beat music, however, and the appeal becomes more intense. Enya made that point quite explicitly in her solo albums, Loreena McKennitt plays off it on her album, "The Book of Secrets," and composer James Horner reiterated it in his Celtic-flavored soundtrack to "Titanic."
But to really get a sense of what makes this music so alluring, spend some time with the new Clannad album, "Landmarks." Best-known for "Harry's Game," a wispy bit of balladry that made its mark in this country through a Volkswagen ad, Clannad pretty much pioneered this soft-focus Celtic sound. By fleshing out the tuneful lilt of pipes and fiddles with breathy synths and lush layers of vocal harmony, the group developed a smooth, pop-friendly sound that was both timeless and contemporary.
That approach is refined even further with "Landmarks," adding additional pop elements without compromising the essential flavor of the music. "Of This Land" is a case in point. A beautiful, bittersweet ballad, it would be easy enough to imagine the song done in traditional Irish fashion, with little more than a harp and uillean pipes accompanying the vocal.
Those elements are also part of Clannad's arrangement, but there's much more to it than that. Not only is there a soft cushion of synths supporting Maire Brennan's dark, honeyed voice, but there's also a tart, tuneful guitar solo that sounds as if it could have fallen off a Dire Straits album. So even though there's no mistaking the Irish flavor of the song, it doesn't come across as just another traditional tune; instead, it sounds like a pop song with a pedigree.
There's plenty more where that came from, too. Although "Golden Ball" has the melodic vigor of a classic ceili (Irish dance) tune, Clannad treats it as a sort of jazz number, complementing the tin flute with soprano saxophone and fattening the groove with clattering congas and acoustic rhythm guitar.
Likewise, though the melody to "Bridge of Tears" feels like an age-old ballad, from its mournful, minor-key verse to its reproachful chorus, Clannad infuses the arrangement with enough guitar and drums to make the song seem more like a Nashville weeper than a Celtic lament.
Still, no matter how much such touches may affect the flavor of the arrangements, there's no mistaking the Irish origins of the music itself. So even though "An Gleann" may open with whining, bluesy slide guitar over a gently arpeggiated synth figure, the song could no more be mistaken for mainstream rock than the Celtic lyrics would be for English. Clannad's sound is simply too deep to pass for disposable pop -- and for that, we should be glad. *** 1/2 The Sound of Summer Running (Verve 314 539 299)
Although the album itself may belong to bassist Marc Johnson, for many jazz fans, "The Sound of Summer Running" will be more interesting because of Johnson's playmates. In particular, the pairing of Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny makes the session a must for guitar fans. Naturally, each guitarist is in fine form. Frisell offers his usual blend of virtuosity and whimsy, bringing a wide range of styles and ideas to bear on the likes of "Ghost Town," while Metheny's cool lyricism is suffused with an unexpected playfulness, giving a kick-in-the-pants boost to the interplay on "Faith in You." Still, the album's real hero is Johnson, whose harmonic prodding and solid sense of time quietly and effectively build a fire beneath his bandmates. ***
J. D. Considine
Welcome to the Epidrome (Epidrome/Epic 68200)
Because dance music is so singles-oriented, it is often looked down upon by album-oriented rock fans as frivolous and disposable. But there's more vitality and imagination in dance music now than at any time since the disco era, and few albums make that argument as compellingly as "Welcome to the Epidrome," a compilation that draws on everything from pop soul to Latin hip-hop to hard-core house music -- and makes it all sound great. Although there are some tunes even pop fans will recognize, such as a pumping remix of Jamiroquai's "Alright," the album's deepest pleasures lie with discovering the percussion-spiked passion of Nayobe's "Let's Party Tonight," or the booty-shaking minimalism of Tank's "Can You Feel the Bass?" ***
J. D. Considine
Motown 40 Forever (Motown 314530849)