- 19 Oct 18
Much of what passes for Irish traditional and folk music has been bastardised to a safe, homogenous diddly-eye, come-all-ye balladry that’s more about attracting fat-walletted American tourists to overpay for porter than setting free the soul of the music. Then there’s Lisa O’Neill.
Over three albums, the Cavan songstress has been defiantly uncompromising, refusing to tame her wild, ragged voice. It’s a powerful instrument, albeit a polarising one – her sometimes gruff delivery is not everyone’s mug of scald – but it’s about as far from safe as it’s possible to get.
For this fourth album, O’Neill has signed to River Lea, an imprint of Rough Trade, itself home to the equally resolute folkies Lankum. Recorded in Blackbox Studios in France’s Loire Valley, co-produced with former Frames guitarist David Odlum, it sees O’Neill joined by Lankum’s Radie Peat, concertina maestro Cormac Begley, bouzouki player Libby McCrohan, and multi-instrumentalist Christophe Capewell. It all makes for a heady mixture of traditional tunes and original compositions.
The record opens with an a capella take on ‘The Galway Shawl’, which manages to convey all the emotion of an entire season of the latest HBO drama into one song, thanks to the power of O’Neill’s vocal. As raw and rough as the Cavan clay from which it was formed, her delivery is so startling it’s like listening to Nina Simone or Billie Holiday, had they been born in Ballyjamesduff rather than North Carolina or Philly.
The epic ‘Along The North Strand’ veers from love song to murder ballad and on to skittery jig over the course of eight minutes. The magnificent ‘Violet Gibson’ is written from the point of view of the Irish woman who shot Mussolini in the face in 1926. She was subsequently released without charge, before being deported to Britain, where she spent the rest of her life in a mental institution: “I didn’t shoot to skim the skin of his snout/ Or his teeth or the lips on his mouth/ I simply saw a bad egg and I thought I’d take the bad egg out.”
There’s a heart-breaking sadness to funereal dirge ‘A Year Short Of Three’ and ‘The Lass Of Aughrim’, the latter having featured in James Joyce’s famous short story, ‘The Dead’. ‘The Factory Girl’ is even older, dating back to the industrial revolution; there have been far more sanitised versions of the song, including recent efforts by The Chieftains and even Rhiannon Giddens of bluegrass outfit Carolina Chocolate Drops. However, none have the coarse magic of this duet with Radie Peat.
The stellar ‘Rock The Machine’ first appeared on the Paul Noonan-curated Starboard Home project, where a host of singers were inspired to create music based on the theme of Dublin’s port, river and docklands. A beautiful, sad tale of a dock worker faced with the knowledge that new machinery is making his trade obsolete, it’s imbued with the socialist spirit of Luke Kelly, and feels like a song that will still be sung in a century’s time.
Folk is undergoing something of a renaissance at the minute, as the kick against ‘fake everything’ heralds a yearning for authenticity from food to music. It doesn’t get more authentic than Lisa O’Neill, who seems genetically incapable of falsehood, fiction or affectation. A special talent indeed.