Mellifluous one moment, rip-roaring the next, this is a job well done.
Colin Irwin 2012
Another day, another Chieftains album festooned with celebrity guests. Paddy Moloney’s eager eye for a marketing opportunity occasionally incites cynicism, and it’s tempting to scour the cast list here – Bon Iver, The Low Anthem, The Decemberists, Paolo Nutini, The Civil Wars and Carolina Chocolate Drops are amongst the collaborators – and assume this is merely an attempt by the Chieftains to delay their dotage by attaching themselves to some of the groovier names on the block, in the style of their most successful Chieftains album, The Long Black Veil. Released back in 1995, that collection featured turns from The Rolling Stones, Sting and Mark Knopfler.
Tempting, but unfair, for while some automatically rail against the perception of The Chieftains’ self-appointed role as unofficial international ambassadors of Irishness, the bottom line is that Voice of Ages is a fine album. Only they could incorporate a track recorded in outer space by whistle player/flautist/NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, but the way they slickly meld her playing into a characteristic Chieftains knees-up is not merely a clever selling point, it’s rather good. And, for all their sway with younger audiences, the guest acts never get to dominate, always bowing to the grace and elegance of that magnificent ensemble sound, be it the hoedown spirit of Pretty Little Girl (Carolina Chocolate Drops) or Bob Dylan’s When the Ship Comes In (delivered with engaging sensitivity by The Decemberists).
Some work better than others. There have been sufficiently mind-blowing recordings of the great ballads My Lagan Love and Peggy Gordon to deposit these Lisa Hannigan and The Secret Sisters versions respectively among the also-rans, but there’s much to commend, too. The Low Anthem’s unexpectedly telling take on Ewan MacColl’s mining song School Days Over, Imelda May’s forceful Carolina Rue and Bon Iver’s fragile Down in the Willow Garden are all hypnotically engaging.
Yet it’s that uniquely distinctive Chieftains sound – mellifluous one moment, rip-roaring the next – that’s the heart of the album, even with virtuoso musicians like the Punch Brothers and Galician piper Carlos Núñez on board. The group’s previous album, the Mexican-themed San Patricio, is more challenging and rewarding; but as a tastefully populist exercise this set represents a job well done.