It may just be me, but it’s a glorious time to be a fan of traditional female harmony groups. The last few years have seen an exponential rise in songwriters blessed with the ability to blend their voices against the background of acoustic instruments and folk arrangements. Witness for instance this high profile sample; the joyous noise The Wailin’ Jenny’s and Be Good Tanya’s make from Canada, the Indigo Girls, Tres Chicas and The Living Sisters from America and our own The Staves from Watford. There are countless less well-known examples and one of those is the Co. Donegal trio The Henry Girls. Around for a decade, contributors to work by Mary Black and Moya Brennan, the three McLaughlin sisters fifth album Louder Than Words is a revelation on numerous fronts.
Firstly, the quality of the writing. The songs on Louder Than Wordsare a finely crafted combination of folk and roots, both Irish and American. There are touches of 40s shuffle, acappella (the opening of Here Beside Me), the hint of a Country twang here, the essence of a pop melody there (No Matter What You Say), a trace of chanson (It’s Not Easy) and a curveball cover (Springsteen’s Reason To Believe). The album ebbs and flows with a quiet confidence and the musicianship is of the highest order. And the harmonies? They float from the speakers like objects in zero gravity, tumbling slowly through the ether before enveloping you in a warm blanket of pitch perfect wonderful.
Secondly, there’s a creative take on the traditions the music is based on with the addition of the The Inishowen Gospel Choir on three tracks. You have to hear these tracks to fully understand the additional layers the choir adds but I can guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised and then wonder why, so natural is the accompaniment. In addition, there are beautiful brass parts on several songs from the Bog Neck Brass Band, used to accent melody or underscore specific lines from the harp or fiddle. These embellishments aren’t unique, but they’re handled in such a way that they enhance the songs rather than blunder through the arrangements just because there were empty tracks to fill before the mix.
Thirdly, this album is a good example of the maxim that it’s not the studio time you book but how you use the time in the studio that matters. Each song is fully realised and the production is some of the best I’ve heard in a long time; separation of instruments is clear and balanced, the voices ride the backing instead of drowning it (and vice versa), the mix is sharp and allows you to sit back and listen without having to work on it – hats off to Calum Malcolm. Put these three key elements together and you have a good album, but do the songs pass muster?
Opener James Monroe, a bittersweet tale of love wronged, canters along and has a lovely acappella middle eight. The positive message of The Weather builds its layers slowly on top of shaken percussion, finger snaps and satisfying key changes. Joleen’s harp provides lovely accents across the heart-on-sleeve hope of Maybe and the aforementioned No Matter What You Say has ‘single’ written all over it. The Springsteen cover is quite unlike any interpretation of the Boss’ material I’ve heard to date and great for it. The standout for me is Home, where the combination of the sisters voices, the choir and a beautiful melody enhanced by piano and fiddle rise and fall over small tales of ordinary people who have forgotten how to get to the one place they need.
This album has monopolised my stereo for days at the expense of a long list of music I should have given time to by now, but there’s something about the effortless beauty of these voices and their songs that make pressing repeat the only obvious thing to do. It’s wonderful when the elements described above come together, and it happens less than you might think. Louder Than Words is seamless. And superb.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
12 – The Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury, Kent
13 – The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal
29 – Glastonbury, Acoustic Stage
The girls are also performing at Earagail Arts Festival, Donegal on 13th July with Sharon Shannon, Frances Black & Mary Coughlan, details here.
Louder Than Words is out now
Order via: Amazon