Featuring an amazing ‘guest musicians’ list, including Winifred Horan on fiddle, Catriona McKay on harp and harmonium, Trevor Hutchinson on bass, Natalie Haas on cello, Seán Óg Graham on guitar and the album’s producer Seamus Egan (“supremely thoughtful and tasteful musician and producer” – Liz), though this is billed as a Liz Carroll solo album, it is far from a solo effort. Yes, all bar one of the tunes (‘The Yellow Tinker’) are composed by Liz, but that’s not unusual for her recordings, and it is really the absence of John Doyle from the album that distinguishes this from her recent output. Double Play (2009) and In Play (2005) and even her previous ‘solo’ albums Lake Effect (2002) and Lost in the Loop (2000, also produced by Egan) featured Doyle’s distinctive and equally stylish guitar playing. What’s foregrounded here a little more, then, perhaps is the compositional aspect of her work. (In the interim, Carroll has released her book of sheet music for her compositions to date, Collected. http://tradreview.com/2010/09/17/liz-carrolls-compositions-now-in-book-form/)
As with, for example, Peadar Ó Riada’s composing, people are very important in inspiring Carroll’s writing, and many of the tunes here are either dedicated to family and friends or connected to some story about people she knows. There are jigs and reels but numerous non-traditional time signatures as well, and in all cases her approach is so full of imagination and individual creativity (at the level of the playing and the variations in tone as well as in the melodies) that one is led away from the idea of repertoire and towards music as expression. That communication through music comes before the strictures of genre to Carroll is, perhaps, best reflected in an interesting duo of tunes (brilliantly accompanied by Óg Graham) called ‘The Wolf’ and ‘The Duck’, a highly contrasting set which she describes as “an imagining of different tunes for some of Prokofiev’s protagonists”, and which irrespective of time signature (something eastern European based and something jig-like) hint first and foremost at characteristics of the animals that Liz tries to convey in music. Talented and dedicated musicians find their own ways of putting their stamp on the musical traditions they inherit, and Carroll does so in both her playing and her composing.
The opening track, a set of two reels, ‘Barbara Streisand’s Trip to Saginaw’ (which begins with a perfect fiddle-mimic of a steam train chugging along) and ‘Michael Connell’s’ sets the tone with her unmistakable sizzling fiddle playing based on snappy bowing producing a freight train of grace notes; with bass-rich backing, the strong melodies are beautifully stated and on the repeats dressed with a multiple of virtuosic variations some of which are so distinctive they come close to sounding like new parts or bridge-like.
The next tune, ‘The Fruit and the Snoot’ is distinguished by a rich harp setting (and part) from McKay and a well-handled middle-eastern(?) vibe. It goes, through one of a few full-on hold-your-breath pauses on the album, into the title tune, ‘On the Offbeat’, with its 7/8 rhythm and chopping cello-fiddle undercurrent.
‘Tinsel’ is a “sentimental melody” with a Nordic feel according to Carroll herself, though I don’t hear that Nordic aspect myself, which is interesting. What I hear mostly is a gorgeous melody, sweetly and richly played with beautiful expressiveness and control, and unmistakably Liz Carroll “talking” to us. Same for the other air (not as strong as ‘Tinsel’ melodically, in my ear) ‘Never Far Away’, which she dedicates, simply, “For Dad.” ‘Liam Childs’ is another beautiful slow tune, part of a set with two faster tunes; and there is a waltz, ‘The Ten Acre Waltz’, featuring a lovely off-setting part on mandolin by Egan.
On my first play of the CD, unfamiliarity aside, I wondered were the tunes as “strong” as compositions as on previous albums cause I had a sense afterwards that they hadn’t “spoken” to me very much, but I now put that down to not having listened properly that first time, not having given my full attention to what the fiddle was saying. Now that I have, I hear the melodies loud and clear and love what they say – though, necessarily, there are tracks that won’t speak to everyone equally and I sense a bit of a tailing-off towards the end in terms of inspiration. (Or is that just my attention flagging?) Stand-out ones for me are (this is hard!): ‘The Yellow Pantsuit’, ‘Balkin’ Balkan’, ‘E-B-E Reel’, ‘Barbra Streisand’s Trip’ and … oh, I just can’t choose from so many others.
Carroll is on tour here this month, with Seán Óg Graham and Trevor Hutchinson.:
Sunday 25 May in The Glens Centre, Manorhamilton
Monday 26 May in Matt Molloy’s, Westport
Tuesday 27 May in The Crane Bar, Galway
Wednesday 28 May in the Farnham Arms Hotel for the NYAH festival in Cavan
Thursday 29 May in Letterkenny Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny
Friday 30 May in The Square Box, Dungannon
Satuday 31 May in the Séamus Ennis Cultural Centre in The Naul
Sunday 1 June in Cultúrlann Sweeney in Kilkee