My first review in 2019, and what an absolute cracker Playing For Luck, the latest release from talented Anglo-Irish band Ranagri, is.
With the group named after the idyllic setting of Rathnagrew (pronounced Ran-ag-rye), nestled between County Carlow and the Wicklow Mountains, much of the writing for this album was undertaken in the equally stunning setting of the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. Featuring Dónal Rogers, lead vocals, guitars, bass & memotron, Eliza Marshall, flute, bass flute, North Indian bansuri and Japanese shakuhachi flutes, whistles, harmonium & backing vocals, Ellie Turner, electric harp, piano, clarsach (small or Celtic harp) & backing vocals, and Joe Danks, bodhrán, tenor guitar, guitar, drums, percussion & backing vocals, what is immediately apparent is that the group's music has taken a new direction, and that they have expanded and pushed the sonic envelope on Playing For Luck.
Yes the trademark flute/harp combination is still a prominent feature, and folk foundations are clearly to be heard, however, the presence of Indian influences and African rhythms that I noted in a previous live review of the group, now also permeate this recording, as do, on occasion, driving drum and piano patterns. Add to this themes and lyrics which reference social and other contemporary issues of import to the band, and the result is an album of tremendous individuality which oozes class.
Opening track, The Strangler, is a moody, atmospheric opener, with perfectly judged flute, bodhran, piano and harp accompaniment underscoring Dónal's earnest vocals in a dramatic song which, through its sombre lyrics concerning fate and jealousy, delivers the album's title. This might just be the best-ever unused James Bond Theme.
Devil's Need presents initially as an acoustic dialogue between harp and vocals before a melodious chorus, followed by a short flute solo, leads the listener back, only to return, with the odd percussive beat thrown in for good measure.
Nostalgia of the political kind features in The Medication Show, a Charleston romp written about Brexit, indeed its working title was The Brexit Charleston. With brushed drums and harp, there are moments of flute which create, at times, an almost 70s progressive vibe in the Raja Ram of Quintessence mould , whilst the very clever lyrics skilfully reference the promises of charlatans, such as monocled dandys, parliaments of sin and offshore pirates, to return us to the perceived better times of a black and white world and the promise of a golden destination, all via the good ship Tally Ho. The official video, filmed by Rob Bridge, to accompany this song can be found here.
Eliza's flute is also to the fore on Like My Enemy, the shuffle breath vamping weaving its way inexorably around the vocals, augmented by a driving drum sound and a catchy chorus. A drum- driven chorus also features on The Thief and acts as a contrast to the melancholic, harp and flute-infused verses.
The heterogeneity of the group's compositional skills is well-illustrated by reference to the following two tracks which sees the plaintive beauty and deceptive simplicity of Sometimes Home in stark contrast to the magnificent Trees. This up-tempo number with dynamic drums, harp and guitars intertwined with rapid-fire flutes suggests, through its lyrics, on one level a woodland wayfaring exercise, but could also, given the group's active involvement in the Music in Hospitals Charity, be a metaphor for issues related to mental health
'There's nothing left, I'm all alone
And I'm hiding and I'm falling
I'll be scheming. I'll be losing'
All tracks on the album are written by the group, the majority, ( 11 of the 12), by Rogers, either alone or in collaboration, whilst arrangements for every track are credited to Ranagri as a whole, perhaps understandable given the vast musical experience that each of them have outside of the group.
With wistful lyrics, again perhaps alluding to a cry for help, such as
'Is anyone out there
Can anyone see me here
Can anyone hear me breathing'
one might be forgiven for thinking that Out There might have an affinity with Pink Floyd. However, with Ellie's imposing piano, and Eliza's equally courtly flute, perhaps Pete Sinfield-era King Crimson, certainly his own Still album, would be a more appropriate touch-stone.
A change of tempo heralds Waiting for The Rain and Falling Down. The former seeing Dónal's repetitive
'We're just waiting for the rain to fall'
almost as an antithesis to the Woodstock rain chant, over African percussion reminiscent of the much-loved Rainsticks prevalent in English Primary Schools, cascading bamboo flute and babbling harp, whilst the latter song is an even livelier jig into which the self-same multi-cultural instrumental textures are woven with consummate ease and skill over lyrics which introduce further geographical diversity, calling as they do on a Juju woman to
'Take me in your arms and charm me' ...
'Oh pickle me with your bottle of wine'
'Summon my demons in snake oil trances'
The penultimate track, Colder, approaches the subject of winter approaching, homelessness and living on the streets in an understated and empathetic manner, further underscoring the highest level of artistry which permeates this release, both in terms of composition and musicianship.
Although this song ends, somewhat pessimistically, with
'I know it won't take much now
Or be long now until I'm on my way
To who knows where.'
the album itself ends on a much more uplifting note, with Liberty. A joyous, almost anthemic, optimistic paean to a future which asserts
'You'll build your house in the morning light
to be free, to be free'
before the Merry Hell-like promise of
'And we'll raise you a cup of liberty
To the people, to the land and to you.
Taking a step in a new direction might be considered a bold/brave move, however, there is no question that it has worked, in spades. The evolution into new territory has been achieved without sacrificing a single iota of what made the group so successful in the first place, and Playing for Luck is an intelligent, accomplished and extremely well-crafted release that truly lifts, indeed extends, their trademark sound to another, higher, level.
|A/B Trio: Trioliloguy||Mandolin Orange: Tides Of A Teardrop|
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