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Weekend: Rock & Pop CDs: Joan of Arc returns in fine voice.

Byline: Andrew Cowen

CD OF THE WEEK Sinead O'Connor - Sean-Nos Nua Hummingbird Records

It's been a while since we've heard from Sinead O'Connor, the Joan of Arc of pop. In the gap between Faith and Courage and Sean-Nos Nua, she's got married again and been ordained as a leftfield priest.

It's customary to begin any consideration of her work with a brief description of her eccentricities and latest spoken outbursts in order to belittle her art. I hold no truck with this view, happening to believe that O'Connor is one of the finest singers. Rather her impassioned muse than the vacuous breast-beating of most of her male counterparts.

Sean-Nos Nua is Sinead's folk album, not that it's the first time she's dipped her toes in the traditional river of song. What marks this excursion different from before is the full immersion in the genre, from the choice of songs and ballads to the instrumentation. The album's the female partner of the Waterboys' classic Fisherman's Blues, albeit with higher production values.

Her detractors would probably wish her to make another sitting target of herself with an album of Irish rebel songs, but O'Connor's wisely steers clear of this approach, choosing a varied set-list drawing from the deep wellspring of English, Irish and Scottish folk.

On the whole it works a treat, with a couple of minor niggles. Occasionally the bath of reverb threatens to swamp the songs, notably on the atmospheric opener Peggy Gordon. The blanket softening approach adds an initial homogeneity to the album, causing it to sag a bit in the middle, but repeated plays soon sort this out.

The choice of material sometimes verges on the lazy with I'll Tell Me Ma and My Lagan Love being particularly over-exposed. Both tracks were tackled superbly by Van Morrison on his Irish Heartbeat album and I'd have preferred Sinead to have brought something new to the party. Yet it's an obvious labour of love, the singer tackling material which chimes with her culture and upbringing.

She's in fine form vocally, the O'Connor pipes and larynx firing on all cylinders. Her pure pitch and Irish diction suiting the form superbly. The closest she comes to the political is in the angry war song Paddy's Lament. It's an impassioned performance with enough pathos to avoid sentimentality. And that's quite an achievement. The sign of a great folk singer is to find new emotions in songs which by very definition are approaching clich.

This is best illustrated by the singing of the old playground and rugby club chestnut Molly Malone. O'Connor takes the song at dirge pace and it becomes a tragic comment on a working class woman's lot.

Centrepiece is the 12 minute ballad Lord Baker, sung with Irish folk legend Christy Moore. In perhaps the finest moment of her career, O'Connor silences the doubters and stakes her claim for a place in the folk scene's roll of honour.

HHH

John Tams - Home (Topic) Like Sinead O'Connor in reverse, John Tams emerged from the English folk scene and is now better known for the quality of his own song-writing. This wonderful album is an English roots classic, up there with the best work of Richard Thompson or John Martyn.

There really is no substitute for a well-crafted song, sung well and played with passion. Home is a very Englishsounding album: in parts as weary as the grave, elsewhere wistful and uplifting. Tams has the gift of language and melody, plus the sort of voice that melts hearts from a distance.

Another Grey and Grim Old Grimy Day deserves a place on any music studies syllabus, a perfect example of lyric, music and instrumentation working in harmony to evoke the mood so wonderfully encapsulated in the title. Driven by the mbira and marimba of Keith Angel, it's British resignation in a nutshell.

Yonder (Down the Winding Road) is a made for folk clubs song with a chorus that simply lends itself to ensemble singing. The lyric evokes a brighter tomorrow and the song's heart is bursting with optimism.

The Ballroom is a nostalgic nod to village hall dances and a part of England that's a million miles from the buzz of today's quick-fix culture. Richard Thompson had previously staked out this territory as his own, but Tams is no slouch at evoking a time and sense of community of better days.

Right on Line is a cracker, too. With just his voice and acoustic guitar, Tams proves himself the master of the extended metaphor in a tribute to a dead friend who was clearly rather fond of a drink.

These are just a few highlights, but the whole album hangs together beautifully. Home is the work of a true English genius. In a world where most bands think that you have to shout and bluster to be heard, this is a reminder that the best satisfaction can be gained from a ball hit firmly and squarely.

HHHH
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 19, 2002
Words:824
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