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JAMES KEANE - "Sweeter as the Years Roll By" - Shanachie 78031

James Keane is a box player from near Dublin who has been living in the USA for many years He has several previous albums, but to my ear this is the first one which really establishes him as a top-flight traditional musician. On previous recordings his playing always sounded slightly muddy and forced, whereas here the notes are crisp and clear and James seems at ease with his music.

The 13 tracks on "Sweeter as the Years Roll By" concentrate on reels and jigs. There is quite a lot of variation in tone and tempo, with fine contributions from young musicians Aoife O'Connor on concertina and Michael Rooney on harp, and solid backing from Garry O'Briain throughout. James is also joined by several members of his family, and by the whole of the young Irish group Turas on two tracks, so it's not exactly a solo affair.

From the outset, James' bouncy box style is to the fore. There's plenty of punch in the opening reels and jigs, and a confident rendition of Mairtin O'Connor's testing composition "Land of Sunshine". The title track is the first of two slow airs, and the harp intro is a welcome change of mood, but four minutes later it's back to the dance music. There are some lovely tunes in this middle section of the CD: "The Little Pig Lamenting the Empty Trough", the currently popular "Lough Mountain" eerily slowed down by Turas, the classic "Master Crowley's Reels", and a pair of slow jigs attributed to Paddy Fahy.

The last few tracks are perhaps a little more relaxed, but still great toe-tapping stuff. Eleven tracks of reels and jigs certainly doesn't get monotonous. The CD finishes with "Paddy's Rambles in the Park", a beautiful slow air which just misses the spine-tingling effect it had on Dezi Donnelly's album.

All in all, then, this is a very fine recording. The sleeve notes are excellent, too, and a running time of 53 minutes is highly acceptable. This is definitely James Keane's best release so far. Let's hope his next one has a catchier title.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 37 of The Living Tradition magazine.