Solas released The Turning Tide this summer, one of the best albums of their stellar career. They have abandoned the new age-y missteps of their recent albums without backtracking to purely traditional material or arrangements.
They start off the record with a guitar-led original reel, and that alone is enough to make the record stand out from the crowd. There are instrumentals in abundance, many unusual in some way, all of them exciting. “A Waltz for Mairead” shows the group incorporating some Eastern European influence, with a mandolin subbing for a balalaika. Egan’s own “Grady Fernando Comes to Town” is hard to categorize; perhaps the best way to describe it is to say that it’s traditional Irish music in the same way that Béla Fleck and the Flecktones play traditional bluegrass. The arrangements of the instrumentals aren’t the only unusual and adventurous thing about the album: The group has opted to do some covers written by rock musicians, perhaps celebrating their newfound bit of pop celebrity after Timbaland sampled them on “All Y’All.”
The first cover is Richard Thompson’s “The Ditching Boy.” Thompson is, perhaps, an obvious choice for any folk group (or, let face it, rock band) to cover. Solas has done little to alter the song here, content to add more instruments and their own sound to the song. The track isn’t weak, although it is missing a little of that forceful Thompson despair, but it’s a bit of a disappointment compared with the next two covers on the album, Josh Ritter’s “A Girl in the War” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
“A Girl in the War” takes on new shades of meaning when sung from the female perspective. (Here’s the video of Ritter’s original for those not familiar.) Máiréad Phelan’s vocals are both less angry and more colorful than Josh Ritter’s, with a world-weariness in her delivery that is perhaps more fitting of the current states of the war in Iraq, the conflict Ritter wrote the song about. Solas’ arrangement is quite a bit busier than Ritter’s stark repetitive mandolin line (it’s a sequencer in the live video, but a mandolin in the studio recording), but the more sophisticated instrumentation doesn’t detract from the essential beauty of the tune and lyrics.
The most amazing track on the first half of the album, though, is the group’s version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Springsteen’s recording was low-key with whispered (or more accurately “muttered”) vocals and a haunting pedal steel. Solas kept the whisper in the vocals and the essential character of the song, but nearly everything about its recording is simply better than the original and makes the hair on the back your neck stand on end: the background vocals that are kept low in the mix and sound positively ghostly, the bass that rumbles almost subliminally on long-sustained notes, a droning fiddle line that subs for The Boss’s pedal steel, and passionate guitar strumming. The overall recording is simply more powerful.
How many times can that last sentence have been written about a Bruce Springsteen song? [For the record, Google says no one has written that exact sentence. -JH, ed]
The second half finds the group displaying that there are plenty of its roots left to explore. The traditional Gaelic “Sadbh ni Bhruineallaigh” and Karine Polwart’s “Sorry” (another particularly powerful track) fit closer with the group’s earlier repertoire.“Trip to Kareol” and “A Tune for Rowan,” though penned by Solas here in the 21st century, could easily be mistaken for new arrangements of ancient tunes.
Solas’s The Turning Tide is essential listening for anyone with an interest in modern folk music, Celtic or otherwise.
—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)
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