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Heartstrings
Artist: Moya Brennan
Label: BEO Records
Time: 13 Tracks / 60 mins
 
Not having heard her previous live albums (promo material told me this was her first, but message boards suggest otherwise), I was not expecting too much from this release – and the dull cover probably helped that preconception. Her studio work, from Clannad days to the recent Signature album, has been built upon ethereal vocals and a haunting, atmospheric quality. Given that even with Clannad (Sirius) her voice could be relatively stark, live recordings were likely to lose the magic that comes from weeks manipulating layers of sound in a studio.
 
How wrong I was. To start with, the songs that make this performance have been superbly selected. A couple of the best tracks from Signature (“No One Talks” and “Tapestry”) bookend the main set; there are strong, yet ethereal, songs like “Perfect Time” and “Molly Fair;” a fine selection of instrumentals, and some Clannad-era pieces at the end. (I cannot be sure whether they are either the same or related by adaptation, but “Mhorag’s Na Horo Gheallaidh” sounds very much like the “Hinbo” track from Capercaillie’s Roses & Tears album, where songs were dug up from a Celtic song museum – although Brennan’s treatment is much denser and more organic.)
 
What most impresses me is the varied Celtic feel (as well as the sound quality that carries it), and not just the seven-minute instrumental medley of traditional tunes that evolves from quiet harp to jazzy uilleann pipes. The eight-piece band includes a harpist, as well as the instrument that Brennan herself plays. The mix makes much of these harps, so that they are not buried under the rest of the players, as often happens, but add a delightful, sparkling layer to the top of the music. 
 
There is something about this ever-changing performance that makes it sound like it should be released on DVD – although it might be a tricky edit, given that the show was recorded in Liverpool and Germany, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra only seems to have played on the UK date. This arrangement works well sonically: the orchestra provides a riff and some delicate flute on “No One Talks,” but holds back elsewhere, so as not to form a blanket over the individual Celtic instruments. Strings also fill the space where Brennan otherwise strips the sound back to piano and vocals, such as on “Sailing Away” from her Two Horizons release. It is particularly here that the many vocalists on stage help to form that layered effect and balance Brennan’s voice beautifully. The only fault with the male vocals is that they fail to match Bono’s original on “In a Lifetime.”
 
Beware the track listings, as there are several combinations around. My version’s cover lists the tracks as on the CD pre-released to concert-goers in early 2008, without the final “Harry’s Game” found on some releases. However, it does actually appear on my disc. That said, the solo material is just as strong anyway as Clannad-era material like “In A Lifetime,” and one of the best tracks – “No One Talks” from Signature – is listing as missing from other releases. But whichever song line-up you get, with such a blend of career-wide material, vocal and instrumental pieces, and some essential traditional inclusions, this could well be Brennan’s best solo release yet.
 
Derek Walker


 
 
 

 
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