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25th Anniversary Celebration
Artist: Altan
Label: Compass
Time: 15 tracks / 57 mins

There’s no doubting Altan’s record. They’ve played with Dolly Parton, performed at the White House, and are one of only four acts (including the Chieftains) to be commemorated on an Irish stamp. Their music has reached the hearts of nations as far away as Japan over their quarter century and now that the time for celebrating that landmark has arrived, they are touring orchestrally-enhanced versions of their songs.

Since I put them next to Hothouse Flowers at the start of an old mix-tape in the ‘80s, I have had plenty of respect for them, but recently, when listening to this disc alongside their label-mates Solas’ new release, it has consistently been the latter that excites me. It seems that orchestrating Altan is not far short of castrating them.

The set is enjoyable, but fairly pedestrian, until “Dônal agus Môrag,” when both band and orchestra come into their own and work off each other like a couple of tennis players rallying close to the net, the orchestra’s low swells setting up a deliciously intriguing mood. This track is like a microcosm of the best of the album, with the orchestra playing in unison with Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh’s vocals on the verses’ low second half.

There are some beautiful moments on this disc, especially where the pipes take the lead and the orchestra fills in (“The Sunset”) but these fine moments tend to stop when Ni Mhaonaigh starts to sing. It may be a personal thing in that, other than in its appealing Irish accent, I do not enjoy the timbre of her voice, which has neither the strong purity of Iona’s Joanne Hogg, the tender perfection of Cara Dillon or the enigmatic breathiness of Mairéad Phelan. Any of them singing on this would certainly make several ballads (like “Molly na gCuack Ni Chuilleannáin” or “Gleanntáin Ghlas Ghaoth Dobhair”) a thrill and raise it to a 4-Tock disc.

Often the Irish melodies are the stars. “A Tune for Frankie” is slow, but fine nonetheless; while the accordion and strings tune “The Sunset” is addictive, having that never-ending circular pattern that the Irish specialize in. Similarly, the album closer “Dún Do Shúil” leaves a hunger for more.

Of course, a more dignified and smoothed-out performance is not necessarily a bad thing. For some fans, who have only heard them raw over the decades, and feel ready for a new take on the sound, this may come as a gentle widescreen blessing. This will also be popular with those who enjoy shows and orchestral music above Celtic. But for those who come to Irish music for its sheer verve are likely to be disappointed.

Derek Walker

 
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