August 2016 Album of the Month
The Gloaming 2
Real World Records
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You've probably seen the word "gloaming" in novels. It's not exactly obscure in American English, just underused. Gloaming is often used as synonym for dusk, which sort of gets it, but Celtic peoples often use the word more subtly to reference those precious moments when the sunset is fading and darkness is creeping in rather than suddenly descending. It 's a magical and reflective time, one in which conversations take a gentle, but more serious turn. Jokers become philosophers, silent ones emerge as muses, and the hesitant become resolute.
What a perfect name for this (mostly) Irish supergroup: Iarla Ó Lionáird (vocals), Martin Hayes (fiddle), Comimhin Ó Raghallaigh (drone fiddle), Dennis Cahill (guitar), and Thomas Bartlett (piano). The flavor of this album is akin to (but more energetic than) Nightnoise (1984-1997), a quiet spinoff project by Scotland's Cunningham brothers (Phil and Johnny) and the brother/sister team of Michéal and Triona Ó/Ni Domhnaill. Their recordings often found their way into "New Age" bins, which is where The Gloaming might end up as well, but that's a misrepresentative category. Think instead a mix of traditional tunes, chamber music, jazz, and original compositions. Think also of the essence of the gloaming. This is music that strikes a mood and stokes the soul, not that which sends you jigging across the room.
Anyone who knows anything about Irish music will endorse my remark that you should buy anything done by Martin Hayes and his sidekick Dennis Cahill. I'll further claim without any attempt at hyperbole that there may not be a living fiddler/violinist from any musical genre whose ornaments are as tasteful and well placed as those of Hayes. Only a handful rival Hayes overall, and few exhibit his patience in building a composition. Hayes' pieces imperceptibly build, and by the time the flood arrives, it's as if it the waters rose one cup at a time. Check out "The Booley House," a tune that lulls you into a sleepy place. Trust me; your eyes will be wide open by the end of this five-minute set. The same approach is at work on "The Rolling Wave," which transforms itself into crashing surf. Equally impressive is Ó Lionáird, a Gaelic sean-nós (old style) singer who deserves to be as highly regarded in North America as he is in Ireland. Those who've seen the wonderful film Brooklyn have heard him sing an acapella version of "Casadh an tSu'ga'in." It appears on this record with Bartlett's dreamy piano and fiddles accompanying him. Listen hard to Ó Lionáird's voice. It is a beautiful instrument on its own. I am especially drawn to the small husk that emerges when he drops down to a whisper. There aren't too many songs as gorgeous as Ó Lionáird's rendition of "Oisin's Song," a stunning mix of fragility and power.
But let's also give a shout out to the man who morphs the light and mood of the gloaming into music: pianist Thomas "Doveman" Bartlett. He's the group's token American, but he's also the band's producer, a role he has also served for acts such as Sufjan Stevens, Sam Amidon, Glen Hansard (of The Frames), Julia Stone, and others. Bartlett uses his keyboards to set in-between moods–neither melancholy nor joyous; neither bright nor dark, though they lean the latter direction. Take a listen to "Mrs. Dwyer," one of those tunes that could be either a tribute to the living or a memorial to the deceased.
Not to be overlooked are Dennis Cahill and Comimhin Ó Raghallaigh. One of the mistakes all of us occasionally make is focusing overmuch on those who stand in the spotlight. We forget that their marvelous musical acrobatics crash without the solid rigging built by others. Those who've seen or heard Martin Hayes know exactly how heavily he relies upon Cahill, a guitarist who can add more depth with a single well-struck chord or ringing harmonic as a show-off can with a prolonged solo. Ó Raghallaigh is a bit like that too, and his work shines on this album in the cadences, many of which are built upon his explorations of the affinity between the fiddle and the uilleann pipes.
This is a rare and beautiful album. My only complaint is that it ended.