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Cathryn Craig & Brian Willoughby Cathryn Craig & Brian Willoughby
Album: The Cooley & The Mourne
Label: Cabritunes
Tracks: 15

The dream-team partnership of established Nashville songwriter Cathryn Craig and intelligently virtuoso guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Brian Willoughby has over the past decade given us a small handful of treasurable album releases, the most recent of which was a beautifully intimate live set recorded in St. Pancras Old Church, London in April 2016. The couple's latest studio record marks their recent move to Warrenpoint, a most attractive part of County Down, and could be said on occasion to reveal a more pronounced Celtic influence on their music-making, no doubt stemming to some extent from Brian's attachment to his Irish heritage (which must have informed the duo's decision to relocate). Certainly, an aura of sunny contentment pervades the lightly skipping opening track County Down (in essence a paean to that locality), and the reflective, nostalgic title song. But at the same time, the anthemic On This Ground recognises that residents must be on guard against unscrupulous developers and the like in order to preserve their community and unique sense of place and heritage.

There's always been a thoroughly appealing - and infectious - air of assurance and accomplishment about Cathryn and Brian's music, and in the relaxed charm of their musicianship that pervades their delivery. No change here then, except perhaps that the new Celtic-country blend proves even more invigorating, especially since for this project they've brought on board a number of their new (local) musical friends - Dermot McQuaid, Fergal Hughes and Paul French - to flesh out the sound just a little. Also appearing in cameo mode (for On This Ground) are the (to us) more familiar names of Cathryn & Brian's new "near-neighbours" Colum Sands and Fil Campbell & Tom McFarland.

The new album's unity derives as much from its freshness of execution, and the unobtrusive artistry of Brian's playing, as from the consistent quality of its songs. All 15 of the album's tracks are self-penned: the majority are joint compositions, with one song (You Don't Care At All) co-written with Charlie McGettigan and another (Do It For Love) with Ben Sands, while the four brief linking instrumental interludes, glistening jewels of guitaristic invention, are (naturally) Brian's own creations.

For me, the album's standout tracks are the final pair - the limpid closing benediction Bless Your Way, with its gorgeous guitar backdrop, preceded by the heartfelt Do It For Love. But I also find the classic country mode of Take Me With You and All The Way To Denver, and the rootsy banjo-flecked anguish of To The Past, seriously irresistible. Instant replay status each one of them!

At first, The Cooley & Mourne may just occasionally feel like an album of transition in its gently persuasive crossover of musical styles, but their natural confluence proves continuously satisfying on subsequent plays, and without doubt the album is something of a milestone in Cathryn and Brian's career.

David Kidman