KARAN CASEY

"Distant Shore"

Shanachie

Karan Casey's first three solo albums (1997's "Songlines," the 2000 children's album "Seal Maiden: A Celtic Musical" and 2001's "The Winds Begin to Sing") were dominated by traditional Irish folk songs. As she did in the group Solas, she sang those tunes in a silky soprano that always seemed to be holding back a little of its power for the sake of intimacy. On her new solo effort, Casey shifts her focus to contemporary folk-pop songs and emerges as the Irish equivalent of Emmylou Harris.

The arrangements are still acoustic but with a looser, more impressionistic feel, accenting the lyrics more than the pub rhythms. Casey's singing is, if anything, even more understated, as if she were delivering these monologues close at hand. Like Harris, she proves a terrific judge of songs, and she alerts American audiences to several gifted Irish songwriters. John Spillane and Louis de Paor open "The Song of Lies" with the striking couplet, "And her mouth was as red as the fresh fallen snow," and Ger Wolfe details the pleasures of a romantic walk through the Irish countryside down "The Curra Road."

In recent years, Casey has recorded and toured as part of "The Crossing," Tim O'Brien's exploration of the links between Irish and Appalachian cultures. O'Brien repays the favor not only by co-writing "Another Day," an absorbing, banjo-driven contemplation of mortality, but also by singing and picking on several other songs. Casey's political sympathies are revealed on Ewan MacColl's anti-death penalty narrative "The Ballad of Tim Evans" and on Mary Brookbank's sweatshop lament "The Jute Mill Song." Best of all is Billy Bragg's title tune, an immigration song whose lovely melody finally gets the lustrous vocal it deserves.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Tuesday at Jammin' Java. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Karan Casey, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8103. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)