Grammy-winning Irish music heavyweights The Chieftains turned 50 years old this year, and instead of buying a birthday cake, the group picked up some fiddles, flutes, a bodhran and that age-old bagpipe and released a new album to celebrate their half-century of producing songs with a Celtic flare.
The result, “Voice of Ages,” is hands-down one of the best country albums from across the pond this year.
The album starts off strongly with “Carolina Rua,” a collaboration with fellow Irish chanteuse Imelda May. With a jolly tune and beat, the song welcomes listeners to The Chieftains’ fiddle-filled world of music, and reminds people of the trip to Ireland they wish they had. And something in May’s voice makes it all sound so sexy – maybe it’s the accent. One can only guess.
Next up is “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies,” featuring the all-girl group Pistol Annies. Sweet and subtle, the piece is composed delicately and exudes vulnerability in every way, which is always beautiful. Startlingly, the Pistol Annies sound a lot like Hillary Scott from Lady Antebellum, which is probably not a bad thing. Once again, they have the accents, so they have the edge.
One of the highlights of the album is “Pretty Little Girl,” featuring Carolina Chocolate Drops. The raspy rawness of the singer’s voice doesn’t hold back, and the tune brings an image of a vendor chasing a child in a traditional Irish marketplace, or an Irish pub, whichever one would prefer. And the fiddle solos are just precious.
Bon Iver makes an appearance in “Down in the Willow Garden.” The quiet strumming of a guitar plus the rustic bagpipe makes a solemn marriage, together with vocalist Justin Vernon’s controlled vocals. While a little saddening in some parts, “Garden” will in the least cause goosebumps and at most maybe even a tear or two. This song needs to be in a soundtrack of some movie about Ireland as soon as possible.
The lovely solemnity continues with “Lily Love.” The yodel in The Civil Wars’ vocals gives the song a passion only matched by the wailing bagpipes. But the real star is the flute solos, which puts a unique Irish folk twist to the song, and will make you picture the mountains in your head with every note.
The one-minute bagpipe intro of “The Lark in Clear Air,” with the band Olam Punch, brings a hint of exotic taste to “Voice of Ages.” The next two minutes of the song sounds very Irish, and there is a large possibility that one would tap dance upon hearing Olam Punch’s part.
“My Lagan Love,” despite its interestingly bizarre title, sounds incredibly spiritual. The song begins with Lisa Hannigan’s airy, unaccompanied singing, followed by a short bagpipe solo, and finishes off quietly. Almost like a mellow, morning alarm clock song, “My Lagan Love” is another beautiful song that needs to be in a movie soundtrack immediately.
The Chieftains use nostalgia with their rendition of Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” with indie-folkers The Decemberists. The Decemberists’ vocals seem to have teleported fresh from the ‘70s, but still sounds modern somehow. Although not the best song On the album, it is still a fine version of a Dylan classic, which is hard to pull off.
On the other hand, “School Days Over,” featuring The Low Anthem, is a disappointing switch from the earlier stronger pieces in “Voice of Ages.” The song begins with the sounds of children at play, and then switches to an entirely different tune after a moment. Consequently, it sounds weird and pretty trippy, although The Chieftains deserve some recognition for taking some risks.
Luckily, the album gets back on track with “The Frost is Over,” with the Punch Brothers playing an intro and fast beat. Plus, the fiddle intro and the bagpipes mixed together gives birth to an interestingly happy sound.
“Peggy Gordon,” with The Secret Sisters, adds just another song about a woman in the history of music. Although The Secret Sisters have some serious vocal chops, the song ends up sounding a little sleepy. It’s not that bad of a song, though, and once again, the time-tested combined timbre of fiddle and bagpipes makes it tough to not immediately enjoy.
Perhaps the most modern of all the album entries, “Lunda,” finishes the album as strongly as how it began. An instrumental piece featuring Carlos Nunez, The Chieftains combine their traditional fiddles-and-bagpipes sounds with Nunez’s rock and roller drum beat. The result is an amusing musical piece that can actually be remixed fairly easily for teenagers’ party purposes.
Overall, “Voice of Ages” by the Chieftains is a special musical compilation that celebrates Ireland flamboyantly. Listen to it if you love fiddles in country music, or if you just have a terrible hangover from St. Paddy’s Day.
Ardee Napolitano can be reached at [email protected]