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ALTAN "Blackwater" Virgin CDV2796

The wait has definitely been worth it. Since their last album in 1993, Altan have had a hard time of it. Most of you will know that their fabulous flute-player Frankie Kennedy, husband of Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, died in 1994 after a long illness. Since then the band has broken in a box-player (never easy!) and changed record companies, amongst other things. As a result, the Altan sound on this album is a little different from what we were used to.

The CD starts with two driving instrumental sets, fiddles and box tearing into some great Donegal tunes. There's a bit less fire and brilliance without the flute, but this is cracking stuff. The rhythm section, now augmented by Daithi Sproule, is spot on throughout.

There are lots more reels on the album, many familiar from Altan's live appearances, and all given the box'n'fiddle treatment. The instrumentals also include an "unusual strathspey" which sounds more like a Scottische or a Highland, and a fine hornpipe from Leitrim composer Charlie Lennon. The slow airs are sadly missing, though.

Mairead gives us five songs, three in Gaelic and two in English. I've said before that I don't especially like her English songs, but the last one on this album is a stunner: "Blackwaterside" is a beautiful song about a woman whose lover deserts her, and is superbly sung and arranged. "Ta Me 'Mo Shui" is another song about a woman's longing for an absent lover, and shows Mairead's voice at its best.

There are a dozen guest musicians credited, including Brendan Power and Steve Cooney who add brilliance and humour to the song "Molly na gCuach", reminiscent of "Dulaman". Most of the guesting is quite discreet, and Altan could doubtless reproduce most of this material live. The only track I didn't like was "A Stor A Stor A Ghra", simply because I much prefer the version by Dervish. All the other tracks are typical Altan, flawless and firmly traditional.

There is a mutedness which comes through in many of these tracks. Altan's fire has been dampened, but certainly not extinguished, and new aspects of the music have come to the fore. This is a more thoughtful album than its predecessors, and has depths which the likes of Dervish can't yet match. The album is summed up in some ways by the last track, "A Tune for Frankie", a poignant slow jig written and played by Mairead. This track alone makes the album worthwhile, and I'm sure will be picked up by traditional musicians everywhere.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 16 of The Living Tradition magazine.