This is not the easiest of albums to review, because it’s near-perfect – and a string of superlatives is not very exciting after a paragraph or two, is it? But bear with me – you know that moment – as a player, as a listener, as a random passer-by – when a session suddenly takes flight? That gear change that can only happen when every musician is playing at the top of their game, when everyone knows the tunes inside out, and when each player subliminally understands exactly what the others are thinking, and where they’re going with the tunes? In a pub, silence will fall and chattering stop, as the music lifts both players and audience into that shared space where magic happens.
It’s like the session of your dreams, this album: try as I might, I can’t spot a single bum note, a single stumble, or a single touch of anything less than tasteful. It’s a joy to listen to. (Who needs a singer? you might even think as you listen.)
Lunasa have been together for a long time – since 1996, in fact, and Lá Nua (New Day in Irish) is their tenth album, and the first on their own label. Though there have been changes in line-up, the band has remained consistently active, and, boy, does it show in the playing! The majority of the tunes are recently-authored: exceptions are the tracks Unapproved Road, Ryestraw, and The Shore House, which are wholly or mainly traditional, as are the Breton (Tro Breizh) and Spanish (Pontevedra to Carcarosa) sets. This is not a complaint – the new tunes are strong and lovely, though perhaps not all of them will make it as regular session tunes – in some cases, there just is too much virtuosity required for most session players to be comfortable. And if one word sums up what this album displays, it’s virtuosity.
Rock solid bass from Trevor Hutchinson, and lively rhythmic action from Paul Meehan on guitar, bouzouki and mandolin, lift and support the front-line melodic and harmonic interplay of Seán Smyth on fiddle and whistles, Kevin Crawford on flutes and whistles, and Cillan Vallely on pipes and whistle. Note that all three can and do play whistle, which leads to some moments where the combination of flute and whistle, or high and low whistles in three-part harmony, will take your breath away – especially where the whistle/flute combination provides a treble drone for the pipes. It would be churlish not to mention the contributions from guest artists Máire Breatnach on fiddle and viola, Gerry O’Beirne on various plucked instruments, and Staffan Astner on electric guitar: Lunasa are a hard act to keep up with, but they fit in seamlessly.
A minor carping criticism would be of the Spanish set – Lunasa has a slight tendency to accent these pieces as Irish jigs – i.e. six/ONE two three four five, six/ONE two three four five, whereas a Galician band like Raparigos will swing it more like four five six/ONE two three, four five six/ONE two three. Now don’t get me wrong: naturalising tunes is not necessarily a bad thing, and it must have been happening since time began – where did all these Irish polkas come from, without the adoption of tunes from elsewhere? It must be said, though, that Galician or Asturian bands will play their xotas or muiñeiras with a style that has evolved a little less delicacy and a lot more punch: think Scottish pipe band rather than chamber ensemble.
Only space prevents me from detailing the delights of each track of this ravishing album, for there isn’t a dud among them. It’s definitely not a field session-style recording: it is too well- mannered and too professional for that, but as a specimen of the reasons why contemporary Irish music is conquering the world, it would be hard to better. Lá Nua is one to live with and enjoy for years to come.