I’m always telling friends that one of the delights of writing reviews for Folk Radio is discovering and spreading the word about music from new and upcoming artists. But then an album like The Alt comes my way to remind me of the utterly jaw-dropping musical quality that long established performers can bring to a new collaboration. It would take an age to detail the careers of John Doyle, Nuala Kennedy and Eamon O’Leary, three of the most skilful and respected Irish traditional musicians, composers and songwriters. Suffice it to say that in 2013 they began rehearsing together as The Alt, and, after a small number of North American gigs, recorded this self-titled album. After the first 20 seconds, an a cappella first verse of Lovely Nancy, I was hooked, with the hairs on the back of my neck raised and sending shivers down my spine.
Putting to one side their renown as song writers, they’ve looked to the traditional canon for the great majority of the album material. Nine of the album’s eleven tracks are songs, mostly Irish, but John and Eamon live in the US and so several songs were originally collected there having made the trip over the Atlantic. Nuala on the other hand now lives in Edinburgh and has chosen to include a haunting Scots Gaelic song, Cha Tig Mòr Mo Bhean Dhachaigh. The liner notes give brief but fascinating details of who brought the song to the band and how they came to learn it. They haven’t entirely overlooked their own composing talents, the two instrumental sets include tunes written by John and Nuala interspersed with the traditional.
The backbone of the album is undoubtedly the vocal strengths of all three. Whether it’s when all combine in harmony as in the closing track, the mournful, a cappella, The Letter Song, or when either John or Eamon duet with Nuala, or when showcasing their individual talents. It would be unjust to pick out any single track, every song has been well chosen and each is delivered with a style and clarity that shows all three singers to be masters of their craft.
As often happens when listening to new arrangements of traditional songs, some of the pleasure comes from realising connections to songs you already know. Here we have a song What Put The Blood, described as a variant of the Child ballad, Edward. It turns out to share much of the tune with Son David, a much listened to track (in the Whalley household) from June Tabor and The Oysterband’s Ragged Kingdom album of a couple of years back.
The voices are underpinned by the quality accompaniments you’d expect from musicians whose reputations owe as much to their instrumental work as to their singing. John’s guitar provides not only the rhythmic pattern for most of the tracks but his picked guitar interplays with bouzouki and mandola parts, both from himself and Eamon, weaving an intricate web of sound that can drive along a lively song such as Going for a Soldier Jenny or alternatively lie quietly behind a lament like The Eighteenth of June. Nuala’s exquisite flutes and whistles then soar above this, completing the instrumental tapestry. It’s only to be expected that such fine instrumentalists include some tune sets and it is on these tracks that their expertise truly blooms. There are jigs and reels here that stand alongside the finest arrangements that I can recall.
The three members of The Alt may no longer live permanently in Ireland but to produce this album they have taken a good long look at the core of the Irish tradition and made sure that their music is firmly grounded there, getting together to rehearse in an area of Co. Sligo rich in Celtic mythology and taking their name from a local glen. Their music honours these roots whilst allowing in influences generated from the Irish diaspora, resulting in a confection that delights from beginning to end. I’d hesitate to label any artist’s output as “perfection” but this comes dammed close.
Review by: Johnny Whalley