You're not apt to find the new albums by Maura O'Connell, Mary Black and the duo Mouth Music (Talitha MacKenzie and Martin Swan) broadcast over the same radio station. In fact, unless you happen upon some genuinely off-the-wall programming, you're not apt to hear Mouth Music on the radio at all. For unlike the Celtic-tinged country pop that O'Connell and Black have to offer, "Mouth Music" is quirkily esoteric stuff, rooted in (but hardly constrained by) an ancient Gaelic vocal style. Still, all three albums put a decidedly contemporary spin on Irish and Scottish traditions.
Maura O'Connell: 'A Real Life Story'
O'Connell, who performs at the Wolf Trap Barns tomorrow night, has acclimated herself in Nashville after first making a name for herself in Ireland with the group De Danaan. Pure, strong and often poignantly expressive, her voice has always been best suited to the kind of confessional and narrative ballads she's gathered on "A Real Life Story" (Warner Bros.), though not all of them are worthy of her talent.
Not surprisingly, some of the best tunes here are by Lennon and McCartney ("For No One"), Tom Waits ("Broken Bicycles") and John Hiatt ("When We Ran"). Hiatt's lovesick tale, in fact, inspired the album's title -- "Maybe it's a real life story/ Livin' with these sad regrets" -- and sets the overall mood. While O'Connell doesn't make these songs her own, she certainly personalizes them as she captures the heartache, melancholy and remorse in each. Elsewhere, her Celtic roots and the ease with which she has adapted to the Nashville sound are celebrated on "Ireland," a now-dreamy, now-upbeat evocation of her homeland, and the rousing but trite "Guns of Love."
The album's failings are small but bothersome. O'Connell's affection for reflective ballads occasionally leads her to sing lightweight lyrics that convey more a sense of general moodiness than real emotion, and producer Greg Penny (who has previously worked with k.d. lang) has fashioned rather generic country-pop settings for her songs. As a result, O'Connell often has to make do with the kind of polished but perfunctory arrangements Nashville frequently churns out these days. Sure, having her sisters add background vocals to "A Family Tie" is a nice touch, as are a few instrumental solos here and there, but apart from contributions made by the songwriters, "A Real Life Story" is really a one-woman show.
Mary Black: 'No Frontiers'
Like O'Connell, Mary Black formerly sang with De Danaan and possesses a similarly vibrant and stirring voice. Her new album, "No Frontiers" (Gifthorse), generated several hit singles when it was first released in Ireland in 1989, but it seems unlikely to do the same here. Ironically, the album may be too intelligent for its own good.
Much of the credit (or blame) for that has to go to the five young Irish songwriters who contributed material to the album, and to Black's longtime producer, Declan Sinnott. With Sinnott neatly balancing contemporary and traditional instrumentation, the moods become rich and varied: "The Shadow" is a somber lament inspired by the 1922 political assassination of Michael Collins; "The Crooked Road" has a spry, wry limerick-like charm; "Vanities" takes a cheerful but cautionary view of modern life; "Another Day" combines an inspirational lyric with a spiraling sax melody; and eventually Black and accordionist Pat Crowley colorfully revive the Dionne Warwick hit "I Say a Little Prayer." By American pop standards, none of this has much commercial potential, but it's beautifully sung and crafted just the same.
For lack of a more precise term, you can file Mouth Music's eponymous album (Rykodisc) under the world beat label. Although the recording is primarily inspired by the ancient Gaelic a cappella style known as puirt-a-beul (or "mouth music"), MacKenzie and Swan aren't shy about whimsically updating the tradition. Swan has added layers of overdubbed vocals to the traditional songs, chanteys and dirges, along with undulating Afro-pop rhythms.
MacKenzie, an American-born ethnomusicologist, and Swan, a Scot raised in England with a penchant for creating odd soundscapes, were apparently inspired as well by the David Byrne and Brian Eno collaboration "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," which took similar liberties with traditional music. "Abuse of source material" is how Swan puts it, and though purists may agree, others will find it hard to fault an album that juxtaposes the old and the new in such a disarming fashion.
Besides, Swan's intent is hardly malicious. His treatment of the popular dirge "Chi Mi Na Morbheanna," for example, is clearly meant to enhance the tune, not undermine it, and throughout the album MacKenzie's tart, supple voice is genuinely affecting. Moreover, along with the beat-happy dance arrangement of "Seinn O" and the lush atmospherics that color much of the album, the music radiates some old-fashioned, bagpipe-driven beauty as well.