It’s been out a few years now but I’ve been meaning to write something more considered than the short article I wrote in 2012 for the Journal of Music about this album. There have been many superb solo fiddle albums in the last few years but this one goes beyond the fiddle for me. It’s such a solid and imaginative production I keep returning to it, and I believe the London Lasses have just finished up in the recording studio so it’ll be too late for this if I don’t hurry up.
For the first and third tracks (reels and hornpipes, respectively) we are treated to fine, lively fiddle playing accompanied by the knowing, masterful, at times almost unreconstructed piano playing of her husband Pete Quinn. Karen’s fiddle sound reminds me of a less scratchy Michelle O’Brien’s – that bow-heavy buzzy sound that can alienate some ears at first, I’d imagine, but that one eventually grows accustomed to and fond of and even almost addicted to in the end. In terms of audibility, Quinn’s piano is forward in these two tracks, and I think that’s not to imply that Karen can’t carry it off solo but that Pete’s playing is just too good to leave out in many tunes, and that Karen is enough of a real music lover to know it. I’m not as fond of hornpipes as some people (displaying my late-comer status probably), and thankfully there’s only one set of them on this album, but I can still appreciate the fine playing here. Peter is full on and seems to have a lot of fun with the bouncy metre.
It’s in the second track, jigs, for me that Karen really sets herself apart as a player. She plays ‘Kitty’s Rambles’ without accompaniment and it’s a superb rendition, emphasising melody variation over ornamentation, and full of strength and life in terms of the dynamics. You know she can carry off the solo playing from it, and yet in the first bar of the second tune in the set, ‘Kitty of Oulart’, Quinn comes in on the piano and you wonder why, until the delicacy of his playing reveals how well he knows when to colour rather than accompany, and how well he does it. What a beautiful tune it is, and so skillfully brought to life. And then to follow with quite a personal and rich version of ‘An Rógaire Dubh’: absolute magic.
For the polka set, track 4, Conor Doherty gets it going on the guitar and as with Pete’s, his chords seem carefully worked out to add something moody. And in fact, I have a vague sense that the moodiness in the accompaniment isn’t quite right here for the polka vibe. Polkas for me are energy first and mood after, and I don’t think Karen’s particular style can sustain the effect solo, especially on the second tune. (I note it’s the only set of polkas on the album.) It might have worked better without piano and with another melody instrument. Who am I to say, though?
‘Sliabh Geal gCua’ (learnt from Séamus Begley’s singing, according to the notes) is beautifully languorous and avoids being sentimental. It shows great control and belief in the air itself and in the playing. I think there’s a hint of “atmosphere” added electronically, but it’s kept minimal, as are Pete’s chords.
With the piano so much to the fore, there’s superficially a céilí band sound to some of the tracks, particularly the ‘Sally Gardens/Miss McClouds/Tommy Maguires’ set, with the inclusion of flowing accordion playing from Gary Connolly, but they’re lifted out of the ordinary by Karen’s really joyful style and Peter’s sheer musicality. I can’t quite figure out what they’re doing in terms of technique that makes it so, but it’s definitely there: “this tune still has something more to say, and we’re going to make sure it gets heard,” kind of thing.
In track 7 (‘Kiss the Bride’ and ‘Shandon Bells’) Karen takes up the banjo and while the je ne sais quo isn’t there for me in the playing, it’s fair enough, but Peter’s piano almost takes over completely in my ears.
The mood goes subdued slightly with a set of sadder tunes, “Dr O’Neill’s/Saddle the Pony” (which I never thought of as sad, but it does come across so here, partly by the way Peter accompanies). The moodiness continues through the next set too, all composed by Karen: guitar accompaniment setting off ‘The Gathering’, joined by piano for the run into ‘Liverpool to London’, and into a more determined tone of ‘The New Piano’.
On the reel set of ‘The Swallow’s Tail’, ‘The Sunny Banks’ and ‘The London Lasses’ she plays whistle along with superb, sparsely plucked guitar accompaniment from Conor. Up to this point his playing had been solid but conventional, whereas here he takes risks with it at times and they pay off big as far as I’m concerned. More really imaginative accompaniment allowed to stand with the beautiful melody playing, and fair play to Karen, I say, for letting it be so. It’s quite unusual in my trad-listening experience.
After the skin-tingling effect of that track, the gentle, poignant beauty of the next one, the only song on the album – Karen’s aunt, Nancy McEvaddy of Claregalway singing the macaronic ‘An Draighneán Donn’ so naturally and sweetly – is almost too much for my soft heart to bear. It is absolutely gorgeous and makes me melt entirely. Peter plays more straight on this one, rightly, and Karen only comes in intermittently with a just-audible mirroring of the melody. There’s a feint electronic track providing a bit of atmosphere, I think, and there’s a crackle in the voice track fitting perfectly with the mood. Such a magnificent piece of music, with for me an emotional power to rival something like Gavin Bryars’ arrangement of the ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ song. Why is it not being played on Irish and other radio stations?
On the gorgeous waltz, ‘Tim O’Leary’s’, Pete uses a harpsichord effect on the keyboard to great effect, and Karen is joined by fiddlers Elaine Conwell (of the London Lasses) and friend Teresa Connolly and the ensemble strings are brilliant for the tune and for the reel that follows.
For the penultimate set of jigs, ‘Going to Mass Last Sunday’, ‘The Gold Ring’ and ‘The Battering Ram’, Karen plays with Gary on accordion and Colman Connolly on uilleann pipes, before finishing the album with “three favourite reels I’ve been playing as a set for years … [and which] still get a regular airing on Saturday nights at Toolan’s Bar, North Finchley where I play a weekly session with Gary and Pete.”
I would have loved to hear another tune or two on solo fiddle, even though, I have to say, Pete’s playing is fascinating and the quality of both musicians makes me eagerly await the London Lasses 2015 release.
In the meantime, you can find out more about Karen and Pete here http://www.karenryan.net/ and get The Coast Road here http://www.cic.ie/en/music/non-digital/the-coast-road-cd
The tracks are as follows:
1. Reels: The Limerick Lassies, The Gatehouse Maid, The Mountain Top
2. Jigs: Kitty’s Rambles, Kitty of Oulart, An Rógaire Dubh
3. Hornpipes: Plains of Boyle, McGlinchey’s, Walsh’s
4. Polkas: Dan Herlihy’s, Tom Billy’s
5. Slow Air: Sliabh Geal gCua
6. Reels: Sally Gardens, Miss McCloud’s, Tommy Maguire’s
7. Jigs: Kiss the Bride, Shannon Bells
8. Reels: Mrs Lawrie’s, Karen Ryan’s
9. Jigs: Dr O’Neill’s, Saddle the Pony
10. Slip Jigs: The Gathering , Liverpool to London, The New Piano
11. Reels: The Swallow’s Tail, The Sunny Banks, The London Lassies
12. Song: An Draighneán Donn
13. Waltz and Reel: Tim O’Leary’s, The Rabbit’s Burrow
14. Jigs: Going to Mass Last Sunday, The Gold Ring, The Battering Ram
15. Reels: Galway Reel, Musical Priest, Sailor On The Rock