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Hill of Thieves
Artist: Cara Dillon
Label: Charcoal Records
Time: 11 Tracks / 45 mins
It says something about the quality of an artist when you learn to expect near-perfection, and if anyone wants a shining example of how to take a batch of traditional songs and make them work in a timeless yet contemporary way, you would be hard pushed to beat this superb disc, on which nine out of eleven tracks are excellent.
Anyone new to Dillon’s work will be struck by her voice – as clear, warm and Irish as you could hope for, with an emotional range that peaks on songs of loss and love. Equally striking is husband/producer Sam Lakeman’s pristine arranging/ production, which gives a picture frame and background for the portrait of that voice. Nothing in the frame detracts from the vocal or the song; and if an instrument takes a solo or prominent part, it is like a tinted light that shines on the whole piece. Lakeman uses different instruments to pull out a riff for many songs, whether pipes, whistle, fiddle, piano, or – as on “Spencer the Rover” – vocal ‘la la la’s with his brother Seth Lakeman.
Those who have enjoyed Dillon’s previous albums will expect everything, and that puts pressure on the song quality to keep the work delivering. On this disc every song is traditional, so tested (and probably evolved) by time, which helps them to flow together well. Standouts definitely include “False, False,” which was previewed on the recent Redcastle Sessions DVD. Its piano intro instantly grabs the ears, and quickly flows down to the heart. Like much of Lakeman’s minimalist approach, the lines are simple, but the feeling that he puts into them is indisputable. And let’s not take anything away from the way that Dillon conveys a feeling of reluctant, but unavoidable, part self-induced grief.
But the title track is as good an opener as “Black is the Colour” was on her début disc, with a charismatic melody, typically crystalline guitar work, and a strong riff that whistle and uilleann pipes both work around. It’s one of several tracks whose sound is so enjoyable that you can forget to listen to the words.
“She Moved Through the Fair” is one of the examples of Lakeman letting a simple bass line shine through the treble of the mix as a solid counterpoint in an arresting and emotionally rich track, where again some whistle work lifts the power of the vocal performance to an even higher level.
Despite the appeal of the sound’s beauty, the song is still king. Looking at the instrumentation across the album, it is noticeable how much Lakeman varies it track by track. On the moody, final “Fil, Fil A Run Ó” Dillon sings completely à capella; on “The Parting Glass” and “The Verdant Braes of Skreen” only Lakeman’s sensitive piano accompanies her; on a couple of tracks the duo are only joined by whistles and double bass, or fiddle and bass; whereas at other times there is a full band. Yet for all this, the disc has a beautiful cohesion.
It says something for the quality of the collection when the only complaint I can find is merely a personal niggle: as Dillon mentions live, many traditional songs inevitably mention Paddy and Johnny. Unfortunately for me, and quite irrationally, that is a distraction; and it doesn’t help when one song title mentions both names! But even on “P Stands for Paddy (Lament for Johnny), the arrangements are an absolute joy to listen to, and the suffixed lament (one of only two additions to the traditional songs) is a deeply atmospheric coda that grabs the heart, so my niggle is unlikely to be one shared by many.
I do have a concern that Dillon is too consistent for her own good. It worries me that we might think her predictable. Her body of work so far is very impressive, but how long can it go on without being taken for granted? I would love to hear her take a different route for the next album that uses the softness of her vocals in a completely new way – something like the multi-tracking of Enya or the lusciously layered self-harmonies of Michelle Tumes – to shine a new light on her voice, and then make a later return to this purer style as something fresh, rather than something expected. The slight clue in her self-harmonizing on “Jimmy Mó Mhíle Stór” is a clue that she could do that brilliantly, no question.
As it is, this collection of vintage songs is clean and pure without being antiseptic; and stands up to scrutiny as well as it works for background atmosphere. It is Irish song-craft displayed at an unbeatable level.