Gentleness can be an orphan to these times; its soft voice lost in the gales of modern life. But there’s gales and there’s Gaels.
To the latter, here we have two of the finest in their art. They are two voices of the British Isles, one from Ireland, the other from Scotland; one the long-reigning star in the Irish folk firmament, the other a rising light in the northern sky. One is Mary Black, the other Emily Smith.
In the case of Stories from the Steeples, Black has assembled a strong supporting cast from Down Under for her material. She covers The Night Was Dark and Deep (Paul Kelly, titled in his collection as They Thought I Was Asleep), Mountains to the Sea (Shane Howard and Neil Murray), All the Fine Young Men (Eric Bogle, John Munro) and One True Place (Neil Murray).
As much as Black is such a fine singer able to cross genres, she is also an insightful interpreter. The Night Was Dark and Deep — Kelly’s gem of a vignette of a young boy overhearing a strained conversation between his parents on a long car journey — is coloured with a sensitive empathy. It’s actually a trait of Black’s throughout her long career across traditional, pop, even jazz-inflected tunes: she is able to live the song. Some would call it soul.
To illustrate this masterful blending, Black duets with three wildly different singers: Imelda May, Finbar Furey and Janis Ian. And she brings in the family, recording songs by her son Danny O’Reilly.
Stories from the Steeples finds Black back in the best form of her career. Her voice is as strong and sensitive as ever, neither twee nor diddley-i. It’s a cathedral of sound, subdued and strong.
Emily Smith, like Black, was born into traditional music, first as a dancer, then as a singer and musician. She won a national championship for her accordion playing. She has an honours degree in Scottish music from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Like fellow Scot Eddi Reader, Smith has recorded an album of pieces based on the words of the Scottish bard Robert Burns. Caledonia be her name.
Traiveller’s Joy is her fourth solo album. Like Black’s, it journeys over much ground but stays rooted in the traditional soil, so much so that Smith has included a glossary in the liner notes for those not so aware of the Scottish dialect. Her collaborator is multi-instrumentalist Jamie McClennan.
Smith covers renditions of 18th-century poems to Richard Thompson’s Waltzing’s for Dreamers to her own material.
The mark of fine musicianship is often its simplicity, its flow of virtuosity. Smith has it in spades, whether it be on accordion or piano. Her voice, as one would expect, has a Scottish lilt that can melt ice and an emotional reach that can bring heartache and happiness to the surface and then deposit it within the listener.
Her version of Waltzing’s for Dreamers is a small classic in its understated way. By changing its foundation from guitar to keyboard, Smith has delicately changed the nuances and mood.
This, like Black’s work, is a sign of self-assured subtlety. These two pieces show you don’t have to shout to be heard. Here, you can go gentle into the Gaelic light.
Stories from the Steeples