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ALTAN "Runaway Sunday" Virgin Records CDV2836

This is Altan's seventh or eighth recording, their second on the Virgin label, and it marks a change in emphasis. Previous albums have had four or five songs in roughly a dozen tracks: this one has seven. There has previously been one song in English on each album: this one has three. All the songs on previous albums have come from traditional sources: this recording features three contemporary songs by Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh. All previous Altan recordings have opened with a rousing set of traditional tunes: this one opens with a contemporary song.

That said, there is nothing here which is out of character with the Altan we all know and love, the unpretentious group of outstanding musicians with a vast hoard of traditional material and a wonderful feel for the music of Donegal. The reels and jigs are still there, as are the highlands, mazurkas and Germans. The jig sets are particularly nice, and the reels include some excellent Scottish tunes. The songs have a slightly more contemporary feel, but no more so than "Donal agus Morag" or "Dulaman" on previous recordings. Most important of all, the spark and vibrancy is still there: this is hand-crafted music with a heart and soul, forty-six minutes of freshness.

Altan seem to be sticking their noses into the mainstream, testing the water. As every good canoeist knows, there are two possible outcomes from this position: you can keep tight control and do your own thing on the line between the mainstream and the backwater, or you can push too far into the mainstream and be swept away by the current. If Altan can keep in touch with the slow-moving waters of the tradition, they can do spectacular things on the fringes of the mainstream: this album is ample testimony to the depth of talent and material which they command, and re-affirms their position as one of the foremost ambassadors of traditional music. If, on the other hand, Altan decide to push the boat out and go with the flow (and who could blame them?), they may become just another contemporary folk group. Only time will tell, but I for one would like to see them more firmly in the traditional camp.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 23 of The Living Tradition magazine.