It may well have been five years since Hill Of Thieves, but Cara Dillon and Sam Lakeman have been far from idle. The couple have a new addition to the family with the birth of a baby girl to join the twin boys Cara brought into the world in 2006. But even so they have continued to tour extensively, pushing new frontiers with a visit to China that proved surprisingly and gratifyingly successful. But while dealing with a young family and a healthy touring schedule have proved to be meaningful distractions, they have also been prepared to take their time in order to make A Thousand Hearts something truly memorable. They have certainly achieved that and A Thousand Hearts stakes a firm claim as the best Cara Dillon album yet.
You could say that for Cara the process of making records is just a natural extension of her love of singing. Some of the songs that make A Thousand Hearts have lived with her for most of her life, while others have been more recent acquisitions, as her repertoire grows all of the time. But reading between the lines of the recent interview video and things that Cara said at the album launch gig, when the couple come to make their selection for a record, each song has to stand up as something special to make the cut. Whether old or new, the songs have to shine individually and also work in harmony together, so that there is a genuine sense of ownership of each record. A record after all has a shelf life and must stand the test of time as a statement.
If that suggests a careful approach, then the fine detail of this recording backs that up. The arrangements are intricate without being fussy and the instruments are captured with all of their tone and timbre intact. There are some great players on this album and the recording does justice to their every touch. But it’s not all technique and the real skill has been to knit it all together and do justice to their feel at the same time. It’s that unfathomable empathy that creates a consonance bordering on communion, as the individuals all play their part in this spirited music making, yet in the act are ultimately subsumed by the greater good of its whole.
It’s quite a surprise to see what a cast of musicians is involved. There are 10 on the first track, naturally including Cara’s voice and Sam on acoustic guitar, with the touring band of Ed Boyd (guitar), Niall Murphy (fiddle), Luke Daniels (accordion) and Jarlath Henderson (whistles). In addition Ben Nicholls adds acoustic bass and James Fagan bouzouki, with the percussive heartbeat from Eamon Murray’s bodhran and the low drum and sticks of Andy Tween. You can literally pick out and follow all of the above should it please you to do so, although your attention may be grabbed and passed on by one melodic line after another in turn.
Better still then to sit back, relax and let Jacket So Blue, mentally at least, dance you a merry jig around the room. Cara learnt this song from time spent in Donegal and it’s an unusual variant of the sailor and the lassie theme, where neither causes the downfall of the other. So in this case the song retains its breezy upbeat tune, without leading you up the garden path, or dark forest trail. The sailor even proves true to his girl back home and the lassie settles for an artist’s impression of the young beau, rather than the far more fateful, cross dressing route of smuggling herself aboard ship.
It’s a corking opener followed by the sumptuous Bright Morning Star, which Cara believes is likely to prove the fans favourite. It’s a song of suitably slippery origins, that might be a spiritual, might be hymnal and has certainly been an anti-war protest song. It most probably has Kentucky entwined in its DNA, which is emphasised by John Smith’s Dobro and the mandolin of Rex Preston, but equally you could pick out the Uilleann pipes, accordion, fiddle combination of the core band for special mention. It’s also a big song for a big chorus and thus Aofie Donovan, Timothy B Schmidt (a latter day Eagle) and Joseph and Martin from Charcoal Records band Winter Mountain all add their voices to the mix, with John Smith and Ben Nicholls completing the choir. The results are simply stunning.
Cara has recalled My Donald from her childhood and on car journeys with cassette tape playing, this was apparently a family favourite. It’s another interesting choice and a song about seafaring and whaling, but from the perspective of the wife left behind. Cara imbues it with great sadness and weight, while Niall’s fiddle playing is also given a chance to shine, especially on the instrumental coda.
Moorlough Mary shows the folk process at work being another great song plucked from the tradition. It seems in this case, at some point the lyrics have been attributed to James Devine, a poet from the Strabane area and the song also boasts poetic language and structure, but typically after it starts to enter the public domain as a song variations occur to suit the singer. The story remains robust, however, of a lad smitten by Mary’s beauty, but without the means to court her, he takes the drastic step of heading off to pastures new, in order to get over it. Sam has picked this as a favourite and you can understand why, the word play alone marks it out and Cara brings the heart-racing turmoil to life in her phrasing. James Fagan adds a bouzouki line that dances around the vocal melody, while the uilleann pipes also play their part. It was a standout track at the launch gig for sure.
Two more modern compositions follow in Shawn Colvin’s Shotgun Down The Avalanche and River Run by the relatively obscure Suddenly, Tammy! The first finds Cara wrapped up in a dramatic and moving tale of a doomed yet still potent love, which features a solo on the low whistle from Jarlath and a trio of guitars, spiked by the mandolin of Rex Preston. The latter is an elegy to the death of River Phoenix and taken with just Cara accompanied by Sam at the piano. It’s a beautifully haunting, simple and highly emotive piece, almost like the eye of the hurricane, serene, yet highly charged.
There are also two Gaelic songs and at the launch gig Cara explained that Érigh Suas A Stórín was simply a drunken conversation as a man turns up at his true love’s house, bottle in hand in an attempt to pacify her mother. It’s another track that gives the core band a chance to show their skills and James Fagan again adds the distinctive sound of the bouzouki. Taímse Im’ Choladh is slightly more controversial in subject as the spirit of the land appears to a young man in dreams and implores him to defend his country. It’s a song that resonates through Ireland and Scotland, but is another memorable melody and I’m sure it’s that rather than any political agenda that warrants it’s inclusion here.
The Shores Of Lough Bran also touches on the homeland, but in this case the reluctant leaving and is a song associated with emigration. It’s a poignant toast to comrades and family on the eve of departure and history has of course given this song an edge too.
That just leaves two songs about the varying fortunes of love. Eighteen Years Old has an element of the universal truth in the pugnacious encounter between mother and daughter. Whilst the daughters request for a mother to fetch her a man to wed might be a little arcane, the “I want it now,” sentiment will be familiar to many a parent and it’s given a lively setting here. As I Roved Out, is the other end of loves travails, where a young maid has been abandoned for another woman with land and title. I have read somewhere that is genuine historical context for this, with men quite literally drafted to fill the gaps created by farmers sent off to war, presumably never to return. Whether true or not it’s a beautifully sad piece and both protagonists are clearly heartbroken, adding a bitter sweet conclusion to the CD.
The CD is a beautifully crafted work full of subtle details and superb musicianship and songs that stir the emotions. Cara has talked about the way that songs tend to find her and the choices here have entwined with her heart a bit like the tendrils and stems of a rambling rose, they have their thorns, but they also have their blooms of great beauty. Listen to A Thousand Hearts and the same flowers will grow for you too.
Review by: Simon Holland
15 – ARTRIX, BROMSGROVE (full band)
16 – WYCOMBE SWAN, HIGH WYCOMBE (full band)
17 – BLACKHEATH HALLS, LONDON (full band)
23 – BURNAVON, COOKSTWON (full band)
24 – ARDHOWEN THEATRE, ENNISKILLEN (full band)