This is the way to do Irish traditional music: beautiful tunes and a mix of moods. Nic Amhlaoibh means ‘Sea maiden’ and the sea is a theme in these songs.  

Label: Self-released –
Time: 6 Tracks / 28 mins

There is a wonderful sense of restraint on this EP, the sort that keeps you drawn in, as if something might build any minute. The disc’s simplicity also means that there are no distractions from its key features:  Nic Amhlaoibh’s voice, the strongly Celtic setting and the tremendous focus on melody throughout.

The singer and flautist, who sang with Danú for 13 years, has a voice with a blend of understated strength and smooth tenderness, making listening a pleasure.

As well as the first three tracks being sung in Gaelic, the tunes accentuate the Celtic spirit, particularly the third track (I hope it’s not rude avoid its title, because it is about 60 letters long and incomprehensible to anyone outside Ireland or Irish America). The Gaelic helps actually, lending the songs an air of mystery and mood that may be lost a little if the words were understood.

Nic Amhlaoibh has an ear for melody and each song has a clear and natural tune. While few of us can understand Gaelic, these tunes win out and are easy enough to sing along to (well, hum, anyway). If there were three tunes typical of traditional Celtic works, two might be among the first three here. The thoroughly enjoyable “Faoiseamh Faoistine” – as beautiful a song as you could want to hear – is the only song that is not traditional. Gerry O’Beirne, who plays guitar on two tracks here, has  set to music a poem by Domhnall Mac Sithigh about connecting land and sea.

If the tunes weren’t lovely enough so far, the fifth track is the classic “Blackwaterside,” covered by so many and always gorgeous. Here Nic Amhlaoibh lets more emotion into her singing.

The accompaniment is highly understated: tenderly picked guitar on the first track, along with Ebow, fiddle, and keys; a subtle drone of violin and cello on the second (together with some judiciously placed harmonies from Julie Fowlis); a glacially paced piano on the fourth, and guitars and keys on “Blackwaterside.” Each half ends with a distinct change of pace. On the wishing-well Kerry song “Tá Na Báid Go Doimhin Sa Bhfarraige, Sios Cois Na Trá Agus Amach Chun Na Farraige” (I told you it was long...) which seems to speed up as it goes along, Nic Amhlaoibh  picks up her whistle, joining accordion and guitar for a reel at the end; while the final track sees her slow down, accompanied only by a yaybahar. This Turkish-based instrument makes a haunting drone-like sound and is a so rare that it isn’t built commercially. Here her husband plays a home-made version that adds mystery to a song about a woman captured by fairies.

This superbly-curated selection should appeal to anyone who enjoys traditional Irish music, as it encapsulates its strengths so well.

Derek Walker