Altan: The Widening Gyre | Album Review - Altan shine in their affection for Appalachia

Wed, Feb 25, 2015, 09:41


The Widening Gyre


Compass Records


Three and a half decades in, and Altan might be forgiven if they were tempted to hit cruise control. Instead, they’ve taken the high road to Nashville, with newcomer Martin Tourish in tow on piano accordion, and in the process they’ve reinvigorated their sound. Máiréad Ní Mhaonaigh’s presence is akin to a centrifugal force from which Altan’s sound emanates, so their choice of album title, The Widening Gyre (a borrowing from WB Yeats’s The Second Coming) is particularly apt. Donegal and Scottish influences still reign supreme, particularly in the band’s tune choices, and here the triangulation of Ciarán Tourish’s fiddle with Mark Kelly’s and Dáithí Sproule’s guitars is the foundation on which the melodies pivot to often sparkling effect. But it’s Altan’s affection for and embrace of American roots and Appalachian bluegrass fiddle and banjo that ignites much of this collection. The beautifully disciplined and complex banjo of Alison Brown, alongside the bluegrass fiddle lines of Darol Anger, skew the band’s sound in gloriously unexpected directions, so that tunes pairings such as Buffalo Gals, Leather Britches and Leslie’s Reel interlock with the intuition and intimacy of long-lost siblings. Bruce Molsky’s vocals and fiddle partner Ní Mhaonaigh’s on No Ash Will Burn, and Tim O’Brien trades vocals and mandolin lines with her on The House Carpenter, the pair sidestepping banjo and bodhrán in a delicious four-step.

What’s most surprising, though, is that despite the all-star cast, at the heart of this recording is ample space for each tune and song to shine. Regrets are few: Eddi Reader’s contribution is limited to a muted backing vocal on Far Beyond Carrickfinn, a song composed in memory of Ní Mhaonaigh’s late father, Francie Mooney. At times, Martin Tourish’s piano accordion flexes its considerable muscle where Altan’s founding member, accordionist Dermot Byrne, would have lent greater subtlety. But the whole is much more than the sum of the parts, and The Widening Gyre is proof that musicians with an appetite for new horizons will never fall foul of the temptation to cleave to the road already travelled.