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Nuala KennedyNuala Kennedy
Album: Behave The Bravest
Label: Under The Arch
Tracks: 10

Born and raised in Co. Louth but now based in Edinburgh, traditional singer and flute/whistle player Nuala has a busy touring schedule that sees her keeping two versions of her touring band on the go, and this latest record, definitely her finest yet, sees her making good use of both lineups - one based in Scotland and one in America. The latter, where Nuala is joined by Eamon O'Leary (guitar, bouzouki, vocal harmonies), Johnny Connolly (button accordion) and Mathias Kunzil (percussion), is called into play for three tracks recorded in California, including the gorgeous disc opener, Lovely Armoy and a delicious combination of Scottish waulking song and the Young Tom Ennis jig. The remainder of the album was recorded in Scotland (and Sydney and Newcastle, it turns out, while on tour!), with Shona Mooney (fiddle), Michael Bryan (guitar) and Donald Hay (percussion), with Joe Phillips helping out on double bass on five tracks.

Behave The Bravest is in effect Nuala's celebration of ten years as a recording artist, drawing on her extensive experience to present a collection of live-in-the-studio recordings that reflect her talent for creatively reworking traditional songs. Here she harks back to her origins with a well-balanced menu of mostly songs, with three instrumental tracks for contrast (though no mere interludes, I hasten to add). Nuala has made it something of a speciality over the years to research and feature songs with a strong female protagonist, and Behave The Bravest provides a number of good examples. The album's centre-piece (and the third track recorded in America) is a generously paced account of the ballad of Fair Annie Of The Loch Royanne, which wears its expansive eight-minute span very lightly indeed without ever shortchanging on momentum or drama in the onward progress of the storytelling. Niamh's depth of understanding, and her skill in taking a beautifully unhurried approach to her interpretations, is nowhere more persuasively demonstrated than here, although this characteristic is a strong feature of each and every song to which she turns her voice. Even on her animated take on Death And The Lady, The air of authentic tradition is always present, even when Nuala takes a bolder stance with a more instrumentally imaginative setting, as on The Lion's Den (whose lyric provides the disc with its title), which builds impressively from a deceptively gentle opening string arrangement to the stirring gait of slow reel The Burning House which forms a brilliant coda to the song. The wonderfully limpid arrangement of Úrchnoc Chéin Mhic Cáinte (The Fair Hill Of Killen) proves another masterstroke.

The subtle shadings of Nuala's seriously beautiful, crystal-clear singing and her intuitive interpretations repay close listening every bit as much as the superlative musicianship and deliciously coordinated instrumental settings, and this is a truly exceptional disc that will outlast many a disc of similar material.

David Kidman