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Impressive debut solo offering from altan co-founder

Rating: 7 / 10

Niall Stokes, 27 Feb 2009

To not know Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh is to miss out on something special. She is one of the warmest, most genuine and most likeable people you could ever encounter, with a marvellous smile that lights up a room – or even the street in broad daylight if that’s where you encounter her.

That spirit informs her debut solo offering Imeall. From the first haunting, Chris Isaac-style guitar notes of ‘A Ógánaigh Óig’, you feel that you’re in the midst of something intimate and enveloping. The chorus rolls in and you’re there, in the heart of the song, the layered voices making everything seem fine and right.

It’s a feeling that persists throughout a record, full of beautiful melodies, fine singing, wonderfully sensitive playing and great tunes.

Co-producer Manus Lunny set out with Mairéad to create a sound that would be different to Altan’s, with whom Mairéad is the celebrated singer. The result is a collection of 14 tracks that manages to be both vibrantly contemporary in its colourings and yet deeply rooted in the tradition. ‘Gardaí ‘n Rí’, for example, has a pop feel here, with hints of the Enya sound on occasion. If it wasn’t in Irish it’d get loads of radio play – so why not break the mould? It feels familiar enough not to frighten the horses of FM land.

The mazurkas that make up track three could be out of Southern Comfort or The Long Riders. The Hardanger fiddles – originating in Norway and played by Mairéad and AnnBjorg Lien – are double tracked, giving them a lovely rich feel and you can imagine the scene of the pioneers dancing in a rural barnhouse.

If the production is exemplary, so is Tim Edey’s guitar backing, which is wonderfully empathetic on a gorgeous slow air, ‘An Fidleoir’, reminiscent of ‘Sullivan’s John’, on the jaunty combination of ‘Highlands’ and ‘The Red Crow’ (a tipping of the metaphorical cap to Altan which is given a subtle flavour of Hot Club de France here) and on ‘Aige Bruach Dhún Réimhe’.

But in the end this is Mairéad’s masterpiece. ‘Mo Níon Ó’ is a sweet song to her daughter and she gives superb vocal performances on ‘Dobbin’s Flowery Vale’ and on the closing Breton influenced ‘An Dro/Imeall’. There’s a purity of purpose throughout that should be a lesson to musicians of a more venal disposition. This is music made for the sake of the art, for the magic of being in the moment making an unforgettable noise or for the sheer pleasure of telling a story eloquently through song.

Imeall is a very beautiful thing. Which is no surprise at all, when you think about it.

Key Track: 'A Ógánaigh Óig'

Rating: 7 / 10
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