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ALTAN "The Blue Idol " Virgin VE961

Altan's umpteenth album contains exactly the sort of high quality music we've come to expect from this Donegal supergroup. For those who felt their last recording was a little too mainstream commercial, "Blue Idol" is more down to earth. For those who liked the Nashville feel of "Another Sky", the new CD still leans that way. The opening two tracks are well-known songs in English, probably with Scots origins. Indeed, of the six songs here only two are in Irish Gaelic: although Mairead has a fine voice in any language, I for one would prefer to hear more Donegal Irish. The two Gaelic songs are clear highlights, great tunes behind powerful vocals with ear-grabbing arrangements. An Cailin Deas Og easily outshines the English translation The Pretty Young Girl which precedes it on this recording, and Cuach mo Lon Dubh Bui is a lively number given a thumping treatment with half a dozen guests.

Guests are something of a mixed blessing on this CD. Only one of the thirteen tracks seems to be free of them, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Paul Brady duets with Mairead on the opener Daily Growing, Liam O'Flynn brings back memories of "The Brendan Voyage" with his fluid piping on the Tourish/Kelly jig Roaring Water, and Jim Higgins' bodhran is busy throughout the album. Steve Cooney, Donal Lunny, and even Dolly Parton do their bit, along with several others. One particularly nice touch is the flute of young Ulsterman Harry Bradley: it's great to hear a flute again in an Altan line-up. Harry features on the title track, a set of three great jigs, and really comes to the fore on the Mother's Delight set of reels.

Curiously, although they have the lion's share of tracks, Altan's instrumentals don't stand out on this album. There are some great tunes, the ones I've mentioned plus a full-blooded set of Donegal highlands and a great medley to end the CD, but the songs have more impact somehow. The fiery fiddling doesn't come through, and the virtuosity is reined in. I know it's a studio album, but a bit more spontaneity wouldn't hurt. And when oh when will there be a live recording?

This is a polished professional album from the Altan we know and love. No great surprises, and perhaps their next one will reawaken the raw power of Donegal music. From anyone else this would be a truly great CD, but long-time Altan fans have very high expectations. If you buy Blue Idol, as I think you should, I leave you with this question: whatever happened to Daithi Sproule?

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 48 of The Living Tradition magazine.