Clannad: An Diolaim

Jayme Lynn Blaschke wrote this for Roots and Branches.

Clannad is quickly becoming one of the most compiled bands in Celtic music. Already boasting two “Best Of” collections and a soundtrack collections, Clannad now adds An Diolaimto the list. Fortunatley, An Diolaim isn’t just another opportunistic knock-off, for it repackages the majority of songs from Clannad’s hard-to-find second and third albums, Clannad 2 and Dulaman, respectively.

The song “Dulaman” alone is almost worth the price of the disc. Meaning seaweed in Gaelic, Clannad layers several layers of vocals in between the fluid flutework of this traditional tune, setting up a primitive, infectious chanting sound that grabs the listener and won’t let go. It’s great fun and easy to understand why this track has become one of Clannad’s most popular early efforts. “Two Sisters” continues with a rustic, foot-tapping beat, practically begging for dancers to hit the floor. There’s a hint of bluegrass here, but the sparse arrangement really defies any strict categorization other than the most general of “traditional folk.” The spare instrumentation showcases Maire Ni Bhraonain’s sweet voice effectively, although there’s little of the ethereal haunting vocals so prevalent in Clannad’s later works.

“The Galtee Hut” is a bit of a frivolous romp, the type of silly Celtic jig that the average Joe Schmoe thinks of when conjuring images of Celtic music. Slight and fluffy, but quite entertaining in its own right. “Eleanor Plunkett” is a soothing flute piece that gently rolls by in the same sort of way as “Mrs. McDermott” from Clannad’s eponymous debut album. Another traditional piece, “Fairly Shot of Her,” practically oozes “tradition,” and like “Eleanor Plunkett,” is very much a throwback to the straightforward takes on songs found on Clannad’s debut disc. Maire Ni Bhraonain’s harp playing is the featured draw here, and she goes after it with such energy that at times it sounds almost like a hammered dulcimer.

That same style of play, albeit at a slower, more deliberate pace, is found on “Dheanainn Sugradh.” This tune is lifted to a higher level of “Clannad”-ness by the rich layer of Gaelic vocals, intermingling the male and female vocalists alternately in harmony and unison. It’s a moody and, at times, ominous piece, and echoes some of the art-rock sounds and motifs popular in other genres of the day. Clannad kicks into a more familiar gear with “Rince Philid a’Cheoil,” sliding into a jaunty groove with buoyant Gaelic lyrics that just plain sound happy. The richly layered vocal sound that is so identified with Clannad is not quite present here, but on selections like “Rince Philid a’Cheoil” it’s clear that the band is moving in that direction.

A bit of a disappointment is “Siul A Run (Irish Love Song),” a piece which is probably technically and emotionally as close to perfect as possible, but one which I found dull and forgettable. They achieve a bit more success with “By Chance It Was,” reaching something of a forlorn, wistful emotional resonance. Nevertheless, this song, too, quickly fades from memory as soon as the music ends. Much the same can be said for “Cumha Eghain Rua Ui Neill (Lament for Owen Roe).” It’s obvious that they’re trying for the gripping melancholy of later works such as “Theme from Harry’s Game,” but at this point of their career, they had yet to figure out how to distill that complexity of arrangement and intensity in a form other than a strictly traditional. There’s a brief flirtation with the jazzy and progressive motifs used so effectively later on, but that’s all it is — flirtation. Clannad’s not quite ready to commit to that leap of faith.
Interestingly enough, the “classic” Clannad sound featured here and throughout most of their work from the 1970s is very closely replicated by the band Wyndnwyre out of Houston, especially on tracks such as “Planxty Irwin/Dalesman’s Litany,” “Planxty George Brabazon” and “Nonesuch” from their disc Out of Time and on most of the selections from their eponymous debut disc. Clannad moved on from that sound long ago, blazing a trail of musical fusion none before had ever attempted, and Celtic music is all the richer for it. Still, it’s fun to hear how it all began.

(Music Club, 1998)  

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