I've often been wondering what's become of Niamh since her last appearances on CD (a fine live album and the lovely studio set The Old Simplicity over a decade ago). Her long-established musical partnership with guitarist Graham Dunne is much renowned for the unique chemistry in their combined approach to a wide repertoire of song, and this is preserved intact on Kind Providence, with Graham becoming ever more adventurous in his arrangements and sonic production. The intervening years have brought a new quality of what I can only describe as earthiness to Niamh's fabulous timbre, an added overtone that no doubt springs from her even greater maturity. We need not fear any concomitant decline in her powers, however, for her impeccable control of phrasing and dynamics remains peerless and she's lost none of her trademark penetrating insight and acute interpretive flair; the end result is invariably both arresting and thoroughly convincing.
Niamh's dark and pliable tone is almost playfully encouraged by Graham's deft, light, airy guitar playing, which remains in sharp focus even when he's quietly indulging his arranging skills. That signature guitar is a magnificent instrument, which makes its presence felt as a genuinely complementary musical partner for Niamh's sung melodies - for evidence I need only point you in the direction of The Road To La Coruña (a 2011 song by Maurice McGrath that's a relatively recent addition to Niamh's repertoire), on which Graham not only floridly counterpoints Niamh's vocal line but (unusually) even contributes some charismatic backing vocals of his own. Elsewhere, it's good to finally nail down Niamh's assured performance of Willy O (Bay Of Biscay), which is haunted by atmospheric treated vocal tones, while her rendition of Lappin (Briege Murphy's powerful account of the true story of blacksmith Thomas Lappin) is particularly heartfelt. Shores Of Lough Bran is another benchmark track, not least in terms of striking an ideal perspective of balance between Niamh's telling delivery and pacing and Graham's subtle arrangement.
There's an enticingly insouciant air to Graham's jazzy syncopated setting for Burns' The Slave's Lament, which (perhaps contrary to expectations) sounds perfectly believable; but "proper" light relief comes, complete with delightfully "fresh fish", in the shape of Harry O'Donovan's music-hall ditty Sweet Daffodil Mulligan (sung a cappella). Niamh presents a determined portrait, through a sturdy staccato a cappella delivery, of Valentine O'Hara (an early version of Alan Tyne Of Yarrow). Of the disc's remaining a cappella items, When Fortune Turns Her Wheel is brilliantly managed, but the epic After Aughrim's Great Disaster has to be the standout cut, Niamh turning in a riveting account of the aftermath of the battle.
After which the disc's best-known item, Carrickfergus (jointly arranged - and sensitively too, albeit in a grand manner - by Niamh and Graham in tandem with pianist Elena Alekseeva, who also contributes to the track) might be considered not exactly an anti-climax but maybe not quite in the right place - but then, I can find no other choice from the CD's tracklist which would follow Aughrim any better, and even at an expansive near-seven minutes it does make for a gorgeous ending gambit. I wouldn't dream of levelling a charge of over-arrangement to this finale, nor indeed to the consciously-more-extensively-arranged instrumental track, where Graham's string-bounding rendition of favourite showpiece The Monaghan Jig is set into relief by some spacey synth work that just about avoids outstaying its welcome. Which leads me finally to just one small reservation on the whole disc: the interpolation of twittering birdsong into the otherwise sympathetically configured arrangement of Across The Blue Mountains, where a bass line and synth chords gently enhance the narrative. But then, you can always opt to start the CD at the superlative track 2…
Kind Providence is a significantly thoughtful and highly considered (and most welcome) return to the recording fray for Niamh and Graham (with appealing package design by Kevin Boyle forming an added attraction), and as such is nothing less than highly treasurable.
|Roger Davies: Live At The Topic Folk Club||Reg Meuross: December|
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