Ships In The Forest shines with unsentimental emotion and moments of rare beauty.
Mel Ledgard 2008
For one reason or another, the profile of this great Irish singer lurks slightly under the British folk radar. It's probably down to her busy US/European touring schedule plus a collaboration habit to rival the Chieftains: lately she's worked with artists including Lúnasa, Solas, Buille, Mícheál Ó’Súilleabháin, Peggy Seeger and Liam Clancy.
Karan Casey's fifth solo album might change all that, though how the first listen grabs you may depend on the mood you're in. Her stated intent to ''tackle the big songs within the traditional repertoire'' inevitably involves big themes of emigration, conflict, love and loss, and demands a certain amount of gravitas. Where 2005's Chasing The Sun included six originals and was light in tone, here stripped-down arrangements and a sense of melancholy prevail.
Much of the mood of understated spaciousness is generated by Caoimhín Vallely's luscious piano work, with help from the sonorous cello of Kate Ellis. Casey's intimate voice expressively unfolds each song, whether it's a delicate version of Robert Burns' Ae Fond Kiss or a heart-rending tale of Ireland's political history (Dunlavin Green, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye). An abstract, protracted Black Is The Colour is the killer track, its phrasing owing more to Billie Holliday than Cara Dillon, while Joni Mitchell's 1969 anti-war song, The Fiddle And The Drum (one of the CD’s two contemporary numbers), floats on the haunting, eerie wail of Cillian Vallely's pipes.
Not all is dark and sombre though: Kris Drever's upbeat, melodic guitar drives along Martin Furey's Town of Athlone, and other top musos judiciously fill out the sound here and there: more guitar from Robbie Overson, bodhran from Martin O'Neill, things with keys from album producer Donald Shaw and – you can't swing a cat without hitting a scion of the ferociously talented Vallely family – the left-field (though here restrained) concertina playing of Karan's spouse Niall.
The first of Casey's albums since the passing in 2005 of her mentor, singer/collector Frank Harte, Ships In The Forest shines with unsentimental emotion and moments of rare beauty. He'd be proud.