Hieroglyphs that Tell the Tale

Irish Times, Siobhán Long

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RnR, Ian Croft

fRoots, Bob Walton

Irish Music Magazine, Seán Laffey

All you Greek scholars know that hieroglyphs are not simply those pictures found on Egyptian tombs, they are literally sacred marks. In the context of the song I’m Still Standing Here, by Janis Ian, from which this album takes its name, those marks are the lines and wrinkles left by time on the face of a woman. Casey has a long and distinguished recording career behind her and on this album has the confidence to mix many of those influences from over two decades in the business. For example there is the traditional folk song: Sixteen Come Next Sunday that stands shoulder to shoulder with Bob Dylan’s Hollis Brown. There’s a light hearted song from her adopted home of Cork, The Doll in Cash’s Window from the pen of Pat Daly.

This is a big production with 25 musicians on the album, recorded in Antrim by Sean Óg Graham and in Cork by Niall Vallely, the production overseen by Vertical Record’s boss Donald Shaw; it sings quality from start to finish.

This being a Karan Casey album there are hard edges. Man of God is a bass rich swamp funk critique of the power of religion to whistle up the dogs of war. Karan has never been one to shy away from political issues of social justice and indeed has become a torchbearer for the Fair Plé movement. She has selected the cream of female folk singers to accompany her on this recording: Niamh Dunne, Pauline Scanlon, Maura O’Connell, Aoife O Donovan and Karen Matheson.

Karan is a powerful songwriter; her Down in the Glen has an absolutely gorgeous melody and a refrain of I’ll Sing a Rebel Song for You. Her Hold On starts with Karan’s lonesome voice, singing Appalachian style. The movement in the song with pipes and a brass section as it develops to a jazz crescendo is a remarkable piece of writing, executed perfectly by the ensemble. Karan has an ear for a good song and an ability to create surprising arrangements. This is an album of traditional songs, covers and her own material that is unmistakably Karan Casey. With Hieroglyphs Karan has certainly left her mark.

back to top review, Dave McNally

When I first listened to Hieroglyphs That Tell the Tale, I texted a friend to say that I thought it could be Irish singer Karan Casey’s best album yet. After many, many listens, and the delight of listening again to her previous releases, I have to say that I was wrong – delete ‘could be’ and insert ‘is’. We first heard Karan’s exquisite voice on the exciting debut Solas album in 1996, quickly followed in 1997 by Songlines, her first solo album. Two more Solas albums and six solo ones followed, together with the classic Exile’s Return, a back to basics traditional album with former Solas bandmate John Doyle in 2010. The new album is as complete as it gets.

Hieroglyphs That Tell the Tale kicks off with a vivid take on Bob Dylan’s Ballad of Hollis Brown from his 1964 The Times They Are A-Changin’. The song is about a man who in despair at abject poverty takes a shotgun and shoots his five young children, his wife, and then himself. Things start simply enough, with understated, relaxed interplay between Séan Óg Graham’s very fine acoustic guitar, which is at the core of many of the tracks, and Dirk Powell’s banjo – Dirk’s playing lending a timeless, pensive quality. Karan’s vocal begins in similar unassuming style, but by halfway through, as the song builds towards its shocking conclusion, she sings with an increasing sense of urgency, almost despair. In parallel, the music builds like a coming storm, in particular, the driving banjo, string and bass. By the end, Karan leaves you in no doubt that this should not have happened.

Down in the Glen, written by Karan, imagines a key moment in the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, involving two women fighters whose contribution has previously gone virtually unrecognised and who were in a relationship for most of their adult lives. It is markedly traditional in style, lament-like (although both women survived) and with Mike McGoldrick adding distinctive, mournful flute. The singing is just sublime.

Eliza Gilkyson wrote Man of God out of her frustration with the Bush administration using religion to justify prejudice, aiding the rich getting more prosperous and the war in Iraq; she won the Folk Alliance Awards Song of the Year 2005 for the song. Karan’s delivery is slightly faster, giving it greater insistence, aided by vocal support from Niamh Dunne. The rhythm section – with the peerless Ewan Vernal on bass and James MacKintosh on drums – wouldn’t sound out of place in Sun Studios in Memphis in the 1950s, and the punchy brass arrangements from trumpeter Ryan Quigley are impeccable.

The album’s title comes from Karan’s version of Janis Ian’s I’m Still Standing Here, a song about making it through some hard times and accepting women for who they are, not how they look. It is close in mood to Karen’s last album Two More Hours (2014), which was entirely self-penned, deeply personal and which Karan described as being about getting through things, in particular through grief following the death of her mother. A beautifully simple arrangement, with nimble piano from Donald Shaw, enhances Karan’s direct, heartfelt singing, which is in turn enriched with help from both Maura O’Connell and Karen Matheson. In Janis Ian words: “Really lovely version of my song by Karan Casey… lucky me!”

An easy, funky backbeat – reminiscent of Yellow Moon era Neville Brothers – leads into one of the album’s two traditional songs, Sixteen Come Next Sunday. The song comes from Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill and is on The Bothy Band’s second, 1976, album, Old Hag You Have Killed Me. It is quite breath-taking how well such a musical arrangement marries with a traditional song. It is sung, for the most part, in traditional style but with a little jazz scat singing thrown in for good measure, with atmospheric, improvisational concertina from Niall Vallely weaving in and out.

A deep human empathy shines through on In The Gutter written by Mick Flannery. Mick is a singer and songwriter who Karan has worked with on previous albums. The song is about someone going through difficult times, shaped by homelessness and alcohol, and has bewilderment at its core: “But you know I think, the more you think, the less you understand. And the more I try to get things right the less that go as planned”. A quietly majestic, slowly swaying arrangement underpins Karan’s dignified vocal – consummately handling some tricky key changes – well supported by Pauline Scanlon.

You’re The Doll In Cash’s Window, is a traditional song discovered by Cork singer Jimmy Crowley. It is, Jimmy has said: “a ‘dandling song’, which parents would sing to a cranky baby, with perhaps teething problems. You wouldn’t want to put the baby to sleep. You’d just want to entertain it”. Dance to your Daddy is another dandling song. Karan’s singing is bright and irresistible, sounding like she is having great fun and it will, almost certainly, keep your baby awake. The accompaniment is suitably upbeat and rhythmic, with a perfect match, in sync flute/concertina break from Mike McGoldrick and Niall Vallely.

Everything about Hieroglyphs That Tell the Tale is flawless: the choice of songs, most with contemporary relevance; the guest vocals that compliment Karan’s singing superbly but never detract from it; Karan’s singing, which has developed more depth and steadfastness; the musicianship, which is what you’d expect from those involved – adaptable, brilliant but completely unobtrusive; the musical arrangements, which are richly varied, delightfully subtle and, I would go so far as to say, Joni Mitchell-esque – Donald Shaw at his very, very best.

It is axiomatic that when you’re reviewing something you have to find words that describe your overall view of it. Hieroglyphs That Tell the Tale is so wonderful that words really can’t do it justice. As Robert McFarlane said in his book Landmarks, about words that describe a landscape, we don’t always need words: “Language is always late for its subject. Sometimes …I just say ‘wow’”. Listen and be wowed. Her best album yet.

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Boston Irish Reporter interview, Sean Smith

Karan Casey has long been a heart-on-her-sleeve type of person, whether she’s singing or speaking, and this past year has seen her do plenty of both.

One of Ireland’s most high-profile female singers of the past two decades, a co-founder of groundbreaking Irish-American band Solas, and now a well-established solo artist, Casey released her new album, “Hieroglyphs That Tell the Tale,” last fall as she prepared to tour as lead singer with Boston-based fiddle ensemble Childsplay. She also appears on its new CD.

Some months before, Casey had spearheaded a campaign, #FairPlé (“Fair Play”), to promote gender balance in the production, performance, promotion, and development of Irish traditional and folk music. Many performers – male as well as female, in Ireland and elsewhere, including Boston – voiced their support for her endeavor. There’s ample evidence of the #FairPlé spirit in “Hieroglyphs,” notably through the presence of other prominent female singers like Maura O’Connell, Niamh Dunne, Pauline Scanlon, Karen Matheson, and Boston-area native Aoife O’Donovan, and musicians like Catriona McKay and cellist Kate Ellis, not to mention the work of songwriters Janis Ian, Eliza Gilkyson, and Patti Griffin.

Several weeks ago, prior to a performance with local guitarist Matt Heaton at Boston College, Casey reflected on the making of “Hieroglyphs” – which includes two of her own songs and another she co- wrote with guitarist Sean Og Graham – and the impetus behind #FairPlé. Having spent a quarter- century as a musical performer, including stints in jazz as well as folk and traditional music, Casey has developed a clear perspective on the influences and inclinations that guide her as a singer. The premise, she feels, is a pretty basic one. “I don’t get into the whole ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ question,” said the Waterford native who now resides in Cork. She lived in the US for most of the 1990s and still tours extensively here. “I just don’t classify songs that way. For me, the criteria is, ‘Is it a good song?’ We’re always looking for stories that are sung well and delivered with meaning, and that’s what’s most important. I used to torture myself trying to make the trad thing sound new and trendy and different, but if you try to box things in, they generally rear up.

“It really has always been about the song, and the story. Your creative center has to be genuine. You have to really want to sing that song. If I’m in the kitchen listening to a song, and I start crying, well, that’s a pretty good sign. If there’s a conversation going on, where you’re giving to the song and the song is giving to you, and you share that connection with the audience, then you know it was a great idea to learn it.” When Casey prepares to make an album, therefore, she decides what stories she most wants to tell at that time. For her 2008 “Ships in the Forest,” for example, her choices – traditional songs such as “I Once Loved a Lass,” “Black Is the Colour” and “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,” along with Joni Mitchell’s “The Fiddle and the Drum” – spoke to what she saw as an unresolved grief about aspects of Ireland’s past. Six years later, it was Casey’s own songwriting that became the vehicle for “Two More Hours,” her first album of all-original material, much of it written during a period of introspection following the death of her mother; the album also saw Casey branch out into R&B, blues, jazz and rock-ballad styles.

“Hieroglyphs” carries forth elements from both those releases. It’s musically adventurous like “Two More Hours,” with flavorings of alt-country, rock, gospel and blues, and utilizing brass and a string section as well as folk/acoustic instrumentation (including concertina, played by her husband, Niall Vallely). And as with “Ships,” Casey’s vision by and large extends outwards, with songs that express concern, empathy, and sometimes disdain, for that which ails humanity: “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,”

Bob Dylan’s telling of grim poverty in the bleakness of South Dakota; Gilkyson’s “Man of God,” which lacerates the exploitation of religious belief for political and personal gain; Griffin’s “Mary,” with Jesus’ mother as personification of war’s devastation; and “In the Gutter,” Mick Flannery’s portrait of intricately linked self-destructiveness and co-dependence.

But “Hieroglyphs” also contains songs about resilience (Ian’s “I’m Still Standing Here” and Casey’s own “Hold On”) and simple, joyous whimsy, in the form of “The Doll in Cash’s Window,” a Cork street song revived by Pat Daly and Jimmy Crowley. “Sixteen Come Next Sunday” is Casey’s nod at the Irish tradition, and while this version of the song will be familiar to Bothy Band listeners, Casey’s rendition is infused with what can aptly be called attitude: It starts out in a funky groove that transitions into a swaggering 6/8, all underlined by Vallely, harpist McKay, mandolinist Innes White, percussionist James MacKintosh, plus a gorgeous keyboard backing by producer Donald Shaw.

Casey said that songs can be meaningful to her not only for what they say, but also for how she comes by them; sometimes, they may be in the form of a keepsake, or a gift. “I did a workshop with Eliza, and she was so kind about my songs, I felt like I wanted to have one of hers – ‘Man of God’ really spoke to something I’d been feeling for a long time. As for ‘I’m Still Standing Here,’ I was on tour with Maura, and that was one of the songs she did. Then she said to me, ‘You should sing this. Take it, it’s yours.’ Maura is like that: She has given Ireland such a good canon of songs.”

After having felt some self-generated pressure in putting together “Two More Hours,” “Hieroglyphs” was “just going back to singing great songs,” summed up Casey, who credits Shaw with nudging her back into the studio and Og Graham for his engineering work. “It was all about confidence and enjoyment.”

As for the social and political content of the album, she said, “it all just came to me. I felt I wanted to say a lot of things: anti-colonialism, anti-war, anti-poverty, and strong songs for women. These are the same themes I’ve been harping on for a while, and I thought maybe people would be more into hearing them.”

One of the album’s unquestioned high points – and an illustration of her way of uniting the personal with the historical – is the unabashedly emotional and moving “Down in the Glen,” her take on the centenary of the Easter Rising. Rather than focusing on the storied figures and episodes associated with 1916, she opted to tell the story of Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell: Grenan was the nurse who stayed in the Dublin GPO to care for Easter Rising hero James Connolly, and her lover O’Farrell accompanied Padraig Pearse to surrender the Irish Republic flag to the British.

“Just before the photo was taken of the surrender, Elizabeth stepped out of the way; in the original, you can just see her feet next to Pearse,” said Casey. “But in the reproductions, she was airbrushed out completely – and as many have said, she was basically airbrushed from history. Unfortunately, this is something that’s happened all too often in Ireland: The role of women, whether in the Rising or elsewhere, has often been forgotten or ignored.

“So for ‘Down in the Glen,’ I imagined what Julia would’ve thought as she saw Elizabeth going out the door that day. It’s worth remembering that both women survived the rebellion, and went on to fight for the poor and downtrodden of Dublin. They’re buried together in Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery, in fact.”

“Down in the Glen” underscores Casey’s interest in promoting a higher profile for women, and not just in Irish history. Against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, she explained, she acknowledged to herself a longstanding concern over what she saw as a gender gap in Irish music, despite the emergence of many female artists over the past few decades. One glaring example was the paucity of female performers at Irish festivals: She noted that of 16 acts booked for a major fundraiser in Dublin in early 2018, she was the lone woman. Given that more than 40 pop, jazz, and classical festivals worldwide had pledged to achieve a 50/50 gender balance by 2022, it seemed to Casey that Irish music was behind the wave – and she let the audience at the Dublin event know it. Discussions revealed there were many others who shared this feeling throughout the arts profession, not just in music circles. Thus was born #FairPlé.

Casey knows the conversation still has a ways to go. “There’s been some resistance, even some anger: How dare we ask this question, and by doing so aren’t we criticizing Irish traditional music? Well, we’re not. But we’re also stressing that traditional music isn’t more important than the women that make it. No ethos or philosophy is more important than the people.”

back to top, Philippe Cousin

Huitième album pour Karan Casey, la chanteuse de Cork qui n’avait pas enregistré depuis 2013. Alors que son précédent disque était le plus personnel de sa carrière avec onze titres de sa main, Karan revient avec Hieroglyphs That Tell The Tale, un album plus dans la lignée de ce qu’on avait l’habitude d’entendre de sa part.

Habile mélange de chansons contemporaines et de compositions originales, on y trouve un seul traditionnel Sixteen Come Next Sunday popularisé en son temps par le groupe Bothy Band, et encore avec une touche très jazzy soulignée par le discret concertina de son compagnon Niall Vallely.

Karan Casey a toujours choisi d’interpréter des chansons à très forte résonnance sociale. C’est le cas de Hollis Brown de Bob Dylan. Elle privilégie aussi la lutte contre la guerre, pour la liberté et l’équité pour les femmes. Ses chansons reflètent souligne-t-elle, la vie telle qu’elle la voit et la conçoit. Ainsi elle signe trois titres dont la magnifique Down in the Glen, hommage à Julia Grennan et Elizabeth O’Farrell, deux femmes fortement impliquées dans le soulèvement de Pâques 1916. Pour réaliser ce superbe album, Karan n’a pas hésité à faire appel au ban et à l’arrière ban de la musique irlandaise et écossaise. Pas loin de vingt-cinq invités en tout.

La plupart des arrangements sont signés du guitariste Sean Óg Graham ainsi que de l’Écossais Donald Shaw qui produit aussi l’album. Pas étonnant donc d’y retrouver plusieurs membres de Capercaillie : Ewen Vernal, James MacKintosh ou Michael McGoldrick. Et puis les voix délicates et expressives de Karen Matheson, Pauline Scanlon, Niamh Dunne, Maura O’Connell et Aoife O’Donovan. Un disque qui sonne à la fois traditionnel, country ou parfois jazzy. Incontestablement l’un des meilleurs albums d’une des plus belles voix irlandaises.

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Two More Hours

Irish Echo, Daniel Neely

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Irish Voice, Paul Keating

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The Living Tradition, David Kidman

Karan first made her mark with Irish-American band Solas, with whom she spent four key years before launching out on a solo career, which over the course of five solo albums has garnered her many awards. It’s been a while since 2009’s Ships In The Forest and the widely acclaimed duo album with John Doyle (Exiles Return), the latter appearing shortly before the time of her mother Ann’s death in November 2010. This tragedy naturally engendered a sea change in her outlook and thus also her approach to making a record, and it was the discovery and activity of songwriting that helped Karan to move through the grief and view the world anew from the other side. During this time she immersed herself in poetry reading and “talking to a lot of birds”, deriving much inspiration from the interaction of these experiences with phrases and ideas that were springing into her mind unbidden in a process of true creative catharsis.

The resulting album is a collection of entirely self-penned (or co-written) material that sounds markedly unlike the traditional music for which Karan’s been known hitherto, instead arguably more like a Nanci Griffith record in terms of styling and overall sound. Karan tells her own personal story of loss and longing and self-realisation through decidedly contemporary musical settings that are both accessible and believable in the context of the emotions being expressed, leaving a final impression of a newly-gained sense of inner peace. Although the songs sport strong musical influences that embrace Americana, new-country, soft rock and jazz and pastoral-classical, there’s also something less definable, more subconsciously individual about Karan’s mode of expression that nevertheless brings her invention closer to the musical worlds and overall feel of the likes of Karine Polwart and Crooked Still – from the latter’s ranks, coincidentally, Aoife O’Donovan has emerged to sing with Karan on two of this album’s tracks – while another emigré from the contemporary Americana scene, Abigail Washburn, features on the bluesy Blind Woman.

Standout tracks include the gorgeous lullaby Go To Sleep and Young And Beautiful, where if I shut my eyes I can hear Emmylou Harris; similarly on the intensely moving and heart-stoppingly tender duet Still I Stay (co-written by Karan with Graham Henderson), on which Mick Flannery takes the vocal lead. Closing track The Heron is replete with finely wrought imagery, although I’m not entirely won over by Karan’s decision to employ a spoken delivery for the opening and closing sections. Perhaps in its initial stages the album takes a little while to insinuate itself into one’s consciousness, for the opening (title) song is taken at a deceptively easygoing uptempo recalling a classic 60s-pop craftedness. Home is a setting of a lovely Paula Meehan poem, while Sorrows Away (not the traditional Coppersong) also belies its emotional content to some extent, while also introducing the string arrangement that recurs on a few other tracks, notably the quirky Fishes Will Fly; this scoring is a masterstroke provided by Karan’s husband Niall Vallely, who also produced the record and plays concertina and keyboards on the sessions. Additional instrumental support that lends the album its distinctive mellow character comes courtesy of Kenneth Edge (soprano and alto saxes), Sean-Óg Graham (acoustic guitar), Kate Ellis (cello), Ken Rice (violins, viola), Eoghan Regan (acoustic and electric guitars), Trevor Hutchinson (double bass) and Danny Byrt (drums).

Two More Hours is altogether a very beautiful record and even the stauncher fans of Karan’s traditionally-based work will, I’m sure, discover many delights in this deeply personal set.

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Boston Irish Reporter, Sean Smith

Irish Music Magazine, Eileen McCabe

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Irish Times Article, Siobhán Long

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Sing Out, R. Weir

Three quarters of the way through her latest solo album Karan Casey slips into a glorious cover of Joni Mitchell's "The Fiddle and the Drum," her voice accenting poignant lyrics atop the steady drone of Cillian Vallely's bagpipes. It's an altogether appropriate moment; the song came from Mitchell's 1969 album Clouds, which won a Grammy and stunned critics with its poetry and maturity. Maturity would also be an apt descriptor for Ships in the Forest, which finds Casey confident and in command, an artist bent on coloring each selection in ways that draw attention to the song rather than the singer. Having made her mark as a mighty mite, Casey now feels comfortable dialing back her performance; her take on "Black is the Colour" is deliberate, dark, and somber, a minimalist piano arrangement that would be at home on a June Tabor release. In like spirit, Casey offers a mournful version of "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" that opens with voice and a pipe drone before it's lightly textured with piano (Caoimhin Vallely), guitar (Robbie Overson), and concertina (Niall Vallely). Casey still has plenty of energy, as she demonstrates on "Town of Athlone," but she's now become a complete singer, one equally at home with hoppy Celtic material, an a capella Gaelic song such as "Maidin Luan Chincise," or a moody, semitragic rendition of a classic like "I Once Loved a Lass." One of the great voices in contemporary music has just gotten even better.

back to top, Mel Ledgard

For one reason or another, the profile of this great Irish singer lurks slightly under the British folk radar. It's probably down to her busy US/European touring schedule plus a collaboration habit to rival the Chieftains: lately she's worked with artists including Lúnasa, Solas, Buille, Mícheál Ó'Súilleabháin, Peggy Seeger and Liam Clancy.
Karan Casey's fifth solo album might change all that, though how the first listen grabs you may depend on the mood you're in. Her stated intent to ''tackle the big songs within the traditional repertoire'' inevitably involves big themes of emigration, conflict, love and loss, and demands a certain amount of gravitas. Where 2005's Chasing The Sun included six originals and was light in tone, here stripped-down arrangements and a sense of melancholy prevail.
Much of the mood of understated spaciousness is generated by Caoimhín Vallely's luscious piano work, with help from the sonorous cello of Kate Ellis. Casey's intimate voice expressively unfolds each song, whether it's a delicate version of Robert Burns' Ae Fond Kiss or a heart-rending tale of Ireland's political history (Dunlavin Green, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye). An abstract, protracted Black Is The Colour is the killer track, its phrasing owing more to Billie Holliday than Cara Dillon, while Joni Mitchell's 1969 anti-war song, The Fiddle And The Drum (one of the CD's two contemporary numbers), floats on the haunting, eerie wail of Cillian Vallely's pipes.
Not all is dark and sombre though: Kris Drever's upbeat, melodic guitar drives along Martin Furey's Town of Athlone, and other top musos judiciously fill out the sound here and there: more guitar from Robbie Overson, bodhran from Martin O'Neill, things with keys from album producer Donald Shaw and – you can't swing a cat without hitting a scion of the ferociously talented Vallely family – the left-field (though here restrained) concertina playing of Karan's spouse Niall.
The first of Casey's albums since the passing in 2005 of her mentor, singer/collector Frank Harte, Ships In The Forest shines with unsentimental emotion and moments of rare beauty. He'd be proud.

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Irish Times ****, Siobhán Long

There's enough space in Karan Casey's new collection to accommodate the deepest breath, the most complex storylines - and, fittingly, her bare-boned lonesome voice. Casey's unhurried account of the murderous betrayal of Dunlavin Green, with little more than Caoimhín Vallely's foreboding piano for company, reflects a singer who knows she has nothing more to prove than the health of her appetite for a great song. Gracefully acknowledging her debt to the late Frank Harte, Casey offers a delicate assembly of likely and unlikely choices. The unlikely songs are epitomised by her musical and geographical transformation of Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle and the Drum, the likely ones by her reinvention of the hackneyed Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye. Donald Shaw's minimalist production is pitch perfect,as is Casey's partner, Niall Vallely's spare, white-knuckled concertina.

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Karan Casey Sings Songs of Conscience and Heartbreak
Her New Solo CD Is a Double Label Debut
By Earle Hitchner

[Published on May 7, 2008, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City. Copyright (c) Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]

In 1969 the most popular song on Joni Mitchell's second solo album, "Clouds," was "Both Sides Now," with which Judy Collins had a huge stateside hit the previous year and the Johnstons (featuring Mick Moloney) had a hit in Ireland. The other popular song on the album was "Chelsea Morning," which would later inspire Bill and Hillary Clinton's naming of their daughter.
But also on that album was "The Fiddle and the Drum," an anti-war song by Joni Mitchell that was sung unaccompanied. It was topical then, during the Vietnam War, and her lyrics were unmistakable in their meaning: "What time is this / To trade the handshake for the fist" and "We have all come / To fear the beating of your drum."
This 39-year-old song took on renewed topicality in 2007 with the release of "The Fiddle and the Drum," a 55-minute film in which Canada's Alberta Ballet Company danced to Jean Grand-Maitre's choreography set to several Joni Mitchell songs, including the title one. Mitchell and Grand-Maitre directed the film, depicting through his choreography and her music and artwork (projected on a large stage screen) their combined concerns about rising militarism and environmental heedlessness.
Whether inspired by Mitchell's song on "Clouds" or by the limited-circulation film of the ballet, Waterford-born, Cork resident singer Karan Casey gives a fresh interpretation to "The Fiddle and the Drum" on her new solo album, "Ships in the Forest." Lunasa's Cillian Vallely, Casey's brother-in-law, opens the song with some stark playing on the uilleann pipes, and the drone of those pipes sets into equally stark relief Casey's haunting, spare vocal.
Released last month in the U.S. on Compass Records, this new solo CD from Casey follows four previous solo albums recorded with Shanachie between 1997 and 2005. "Ships in the Forest" will also be released this month in Ireland and France on Crow Valley Music, Casey's own label, launched in Glenville, Cork, where she lives. In that sense, it is a double label debut for her.
To try to boost sales, especially for her fledgling imprint, Casey could have opted for don't-worry-be-happy or latte-angst-sprinkled-with-cinnamon-anger songs heard on many commercial and noncommercial radio shows today. But she's smarter and more sincere than that, preferring to draw on the more durable folk-trad legacy of songs with an edge, bite, or earned sadness to them.
Like Dick Gaughan, whose new live album I reviewed a few weeks ago, Casey is neither timid nor intimidated in her choices of music. The songs on her new album are dark, not dainty; candid, not candied. Genuine honesty carries hope and the possibility of redemption, and both, however fragile, subtly inform these beautifully brooding renditions of honest songs from one of Ireland's most passionate and probing vocalists.
On her website Casey states, "I think it has taken me all my years as a singer to come to the point of feeling confident enough to tackle the big songs within the traditional repertoire." But she slightly shortchanges herself in that remark because she has consistently tackled substantive, noteworthy songs within the traditional repertoire, such as "Shamrock Shore," "An Buachaillin Ban," "The Snows They Melt the Soonest," "The King's Shilling," "Eirigh Suas A Stoirin," "The Four Loom Weaver," and "Jimmy Whelan," which span her four prior solo albums. Those aren't small songs, and her versions of them aren't small either. Granted, many of the songs on "Ships in the Forest" are familiar within the folk and traditional repertoire, yet she brings them up to newness through her ability to get inside them and tap their emotional core.
In pianist Caoimhin Vallely, another brother-in-law, Casey has an ideal accompanist who can initially set the right mood and then react instantly and deftly to the nuances of her voice. That's rare, and it can be heard to stirring effect on her masterly, sensitive interpretation of "Black Is the Color," a folksong chestnut if ever there was one. Possibly sparked by Nina Simone's quietly smoldering version on her 1959 album, "Nina Simone at Town Hall," Casey uses the shaded, jazz-like sensibility of Vallely on piano to deliver her own memorable vocal full of feeling. The arrangement is inspired, and the entire track lingers in the mind after the last delicate keyboard note is sounded.
Another folk staple, "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye," is imbued with new tension through Caoimhin Vallely's piano playing, which employs spot-on accents to complement Casey's singing. Husband Niall Vallely expertly provides support as well on concertina, with Robbie Overson adding his own guitar hues to the portrait painted in this anti-war song of a returning soldier maimed almost beyond recognition: "Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg / Ye're an armless, boneless, chickenless egg / Ye'll have to put a bowl out to beg / Oh, Johnny I hardly knew ye." The challenge of this folksong is to convey both sympathy and ire without sliding into sensationalism, sullenness, or sermonizing, and Casey succeeds magnificently.

"Dunlavin Green," a song about the tragic outcome of a 1798 rebellion by the United Irishmen, begins with Caoimhin Vallely's piano and Kate Ellis's cello, which frame Casey's pensive, poignant vocal that manages to uncover deeper layers of meaning. Vallely's piano and Ellis's cello also gently gird Casey's equally persuasive singing of the traditional "I Once Loved a Lass" and Robert Burns's "Ae Fond Kiss," while piano principally threads through her moving rendition of the traditional "Love Is Pleasing."
No accompaniment appears on "Maidin Luan Chincise," a sean-nos song in Irish that Casey sings with melismatic brilliance and absolutely owns by the time it ends. Martin Furey, Finbar's son and now a member of the High Kings, wrote "Town of Athlone," and Casey infuses it with an animated fervor. The remaining album song, "Erin's Lovely Home," is also a slightly more uptempo arrangement, in this case, of a song about Famine-motivated immigration.
When I attended Karan Casey's concert in a double bill with Lunasa at Manhattan's Highline Ballroom on March 13, I was greatly impressed with the way she tightly linked four songs, including "Dunlavin Green" and "I Once Loved a Lass," to form a larger story arc. In my review I pointed out that melancholy can be mesmerizing when it is approached with imagination.
Karan Casey has plenty of imagination, along with the vocal range and coloration to put an unhackneyed, unforgettable stamp on venerable, unfrothy songs. "I feel that this is by far my most ambitious album to date," she said on her website about "Ships in the Forest," whose title comes from the line "How many ships sail in the forest" in "I Once Loved a Lass." I agree with her, and I'd add one sheepish wish: a live album displaying her impressive, newfound, no-safety-net inventiveness in closely connecting powerful songs to create a more powerful, sweeping narrative.

back to top, Chris Nickson, All Music Guide

You have to admire Karan Casey for being willing to take chances with her material. Certainly, she doesn't have to prove herself as a singer, since she's already at the top of the tree, so instead she seems to have set herself challenges. There's very much a bleakness to some of the songs, with a couple falling squarely into the anti-war camp ("Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye" and a dark, droning version of Joni Mitchell's "The Fiddle and the Drum"), but the feeling is of sorrow rather than anger. There's a track in Gaelic, and a gorgeous Martin Furey song, "Town of Athlone," which holds its own against any traditional ballad, as well as some heartbreak on "I Once Loved a Lass" and "Love Is Pleasing," deftly and delicately handled. And it possibly wouldn't be a real Irish album without an emigration ballad ("Erin's Lovely Home") or one of nationalism ("Dunlavin Green") -- but Casey has picked songs that are outside the common mold, for all that they're traditional. She's developed into a singer or great and glorious subtlety who can communicate emotions with a dazzling range, and these songs force her to do just that, but without any histrionics. On "Black Is the Colour" you feel the awe and gentle love of singer for subject, for example. With Ships in the Forest, Casey shows herself capable of anything.

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USA Today, Ken Barnes

Casey used to sing with Irish folk band Solas, who mixed occasional superb traditional ballads with tons of jigs and reels and other instrumentals that always impelled me to hit the skip button. On her own, the balance is more favorably redressed, to my mind, toward the ballads, and some of these are shiver-inducingly excellent.

back to top, Mike Wilson

Ships In The Forest is a beautifully understated and intimate masterpiece of an album. This is testament not only to the unadulterated purity of Karan Casey's exquisite voice, but also to the unassuming arrangements of producer, Donald Shaw -- arrangements that float elegantly in the background, giving the songs and Casey's voice due prominence.
The album begins with the tender fragility of "Love Is Pleasing," here given an achingly reflective makeover and instilled with a raw sentiment that Casey sings with unnerving realism. When I noticed "Black Is The Colour" on the track list, my first reaction was "Oh no, not another one!" It was foolish of me to write this off in such a manner, because here for once is a truly inspired reinvention of this popular traditional song -- revelling in dark, chilling undertones that reveal a much more anguished sentiment than many other equally accomplished readings. This may well be the best adaptation of "Black Is The Colour" that you will encounter, it will certainly be the most intense.
"Erin's Lovely Home" is blessed with an intricate guitar arrangement courtesy of Kris Drever, impeccably interspersed with Casey's flawless vocals. Here and elsewhere, the cello of Kate Ellis adds depth and resonance, whilst the sparing accordion of Donald Shaw is employed with utmost sensitivity. It is however, the piano playing of Caoimhín Vallely that stands out, adding a stark elegance throughout, and chiming with a clarity that is only surpassed by the voice of Casey herself.
Alongside the seven traditional songs sit three judiciously selected covers -- Martin Furey's "Town Of Athlone" sits seamlessly alongside the traditional offerings, there is also an indifferent outing of Robbie Burns' "Ae Fond Kiss," but perhaps more surprising is a stirring rendition of Joni Mitchell's anti-American "The Fiddle And The Drum" (from her 1969 album, Clouds), sounding here like it had been written precisely for the tradition-soaked adaptation that it receives here, with Cillian Vallely's uilleann pipes heightening the tension perfectly.
Ships In The Forest makes for an utterly enchanting listen from start to finish, lovingly and meticulously assembled -- you really will struggle to find a finer album of Irish song.

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The Bluegrass Special, Billy Altman

Lest anyone think there's even an ounce of hyperbolic blarney to the statement that singer Karan Casey is one of the brightest lights on the contemporary Celtic music scene, then perhaps the best way to begin
discussing her latest CD Ships In The Forest is to say that her renditions here of "Black is the Colour (of My True Love's Hair)" and "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" will have you re-thinking songs you were sure you never wanted hear again in this and maybe even a few yet-to-come lifetimes.

back to top, William Ramoutar

Well, sadly Frank Harte is gone, but he will never be forgotten if Karan Casey and her like have anything to do with it. Frank passed many songs on to Karan and she sure made some of them her very own. There is no one who will ever outdo her version of "She is Like the Swallow." But on this brand new cd of hers, it is unlikely anyone will ever surpass her ladyship's rendering of Martin Furey's superb song, "The Town of Athlone."
She has the most stunning voice anyway. Yet some songs fit her like the proverbial glove but, with oh, so much more, sparkle and downright presence, it is hard to think of anyone else having the boldness to attempt a go at it when how could you……..
That song, by the way, sounds like it has been around for hundreds of years and more power to Martin Furey, for writing such a moving song of love and travelers. The opening track is, "Love is Pleasing" and sung by this diminutive lass from Waterford, you get the feeling right away, she could sing the label off the jam jar and you'd be happy.
She started singing with American Irish band, Solas, fourteen years ago and when she left after about five years to pursue a solo career, I was devastated. In fact, Solas, or the members of the band, taught me that there is life after the moving on, or breakups! Karan Casey has done very well, thank you very much, and it is in her superb choices of songs that she puts together these marvelously crafted works of hers.
Of course it probably helps that on this one, she has the backing of three of the Vallely boys. Piper, Cillian, pianist, Caoimhín and button accordionist, Niall. Without doubt, some of the tastiest players on the scene and a little bit of input from some other outstanding musicians, namely ex-Scullion guitarist, Robbie Overson and the producer is none other than Capercaillie's keyboardist, Donald Shaw. It was recorded in Karan's house in Cork and there is a homey feel to it, but more importantly, it is a work of standing. You get the meaning behind the songs because she sings with such expression and yes, probably tradition is the word to use here. Because I cannot think of anyone, more deserving of being admired by her peers. She is an icon in the purest sense of the tradition, but with the ability to sing contemporary tunes and have them sound like the traditionalists would. Then give them a second listen...and maybe a third.
Don't forget, in what was known as real Irish music, we still have the purists who don't like the "new" singers playing around with the tunes. Instrumentally, if there is added ornamentation (or in layman's terms added notes), the tunes are not regarded, as being in the true tradition. My argument is and has always been, that to pass many of these tunes on, they sometimes have to appeal to younger generations, or to people who might never have heard Irish music. Some over the years have turned what we thought were standards, into rock songs or indeed pop tunes. The old statesmen are turning in their graves no doubt. But do listen to Karan's "She is Like the Swallow" on her "Songlines" release. Frank Harte gave it to her, as I said and John Doyle, her partner from Solas days, added volume pedal acoustic guitar, Winnie Horan, also from Solas, fiddle, and cello from Michael Aharon. At once, beautiful, majestic and heartbreaking Irish music. Also on "Songlines" is the most wickedly worded "Roger the Miller," in which a young man comes courting his only love but presses the father of his soon-to-be bride for a grey mare as well, and loses the lot! John Doyle's fantastic accompaniment gives the song its jaunty edge and Seamus Egan, a founding member of Solas, drives the melody with his haunting flute.
Oh yes, we are right at the top of the tree with Karan Casey. This is her first cd without the gentle guiding hand of Frank Harte, but his spirit is no doubt with her. She has yet again picked songs that he must have told her, as Mary Rafferty's (that marvelous accordion and whistle player, ex- of Cherish the Ladies) father, Mike, used to tell her, "learn this one". "Dunlavin Green" was one of Frank's. It is a song about unbelievable treachery and slaughter and yet in her hands becomes a gorgeous witness to history.
She has no rivals; only smart people who admire what she can do with a song.

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On her new solo album, Ships in the Forest, Karan Casey offers songs of love, song of politics, songs of Irish history, and songs which touch on all of that together.
Irish music is marked by a select handful of very distinct female voices, Dolores Keane, Mary Black, Maura O'Connell, Susan McKeown, and Cathie Ryan among them. Casey stands in their company. Both her singing and her song choices on this project show a growing maturity and thoughtfulness added to what was already a strong set of musical choices, choices informed by her insights at moving back to her native Ireland after living in America for some time, and by watching her children explore the world as they grow. She takes on several of the big songs of the tradition, including Black is the Color, I Once Loved a Lass, and Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye, and adds her own colors to them. She also takes on Robert Burns with Ae Fond Kiss, and in what may be the heart of the album, reinvents Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle and the Drum as a song which encompasses both the sweep if Irish history and the uncertainties of contemporary political and moral choices. It's a set of songs. Casey says, which she feels all her other work has been getting her ready to take on. "It is by no means for the faint hearted but I think it's worth a long listen," she adds. It is.

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As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/9/2008, George Graham

The Celtic music scene continues unabated after its revival of popularity back in the 1980s. And one of the artists who emerged as part of the scene in the 1990s is vocalist Karan Casey, who was the founding lead singer with the group Solas, one of the innovative young bands in the genre. Ms. Casey left Solas amicably to raise a family and maintain a solo career at a somewhat slower pace, but that has not stopped her from releasing a series of fine solo albums, starting in 2001 with The Winds Begin to Sing. Now she is out with her fifth solo recording, which she describes has being her most ambitious, called Ships in the Forest.
Calling it "most ambitious" might be a bit surprising at first to the casual listener, since the album features very spare instrumentation, and ostensibly simple arrangements. The material largely consists of traditional songs -- some quite familiar. But the 39-year-old Ms. Casey says "It has taken all my years as a singer to come to the point of feeling confident enough to tackle the big songs within the traditional repertoire." And she provides distinctive treatments with superb, subtle vocal performances, with the accompaniment putting an even greater focus on her singing. The result is a memorable, often plaintive-sounding album that is largely melancholy in mood.
In fact, this is quite a bunch of sad songs, several of which are about war, and its losses, along with downright tragic love songs, and a song about the hardships the Irish endured in their emigration to America during the famine of the 19th Century. The material also includes Robert Burns and Joni Mitchell, along with a new contemporary song that sounds a couple of hundred years old.
As the great English folk artist June Tabor has been doing, Karan Casey performs the many of the songs with piano accompaniment, rather than guitar or other so-called "folk" instruments. To be sure there are bagpipes and guitars, but for a Celtic album, the dominance by the piano is unconventional.
The recording was made in Ms. Casey's home in Ireland, with Caoimhin Vallely on the piano, along with Kate Ellis on cello, another prominent and unconventional instrument, Robbie Overson and Kris Drever on guitars, among others. Ms. Casey is credited with at least co-arranging the traditional material on the album.
Leading off is one of the sad songs about love. Love Is Pleasing tells the story of a woman losing her lover to another, and the ruing the situation to the point of wishing never to have been born.
The first of the songs about war and violence is Dunlavin Green, ostensibly about a massacre of 36 wrongly accused men. Ms. Casey's performance accompanied by only the piano gives the song extra poignancy.
One of the most familiar pieces Ms. Casey does on Ships in the Forest is Black is the Color, which was a standard folk song back in the 1960s. It's one of the most positive on the album lyrically -- it's basically a love song -- but Ms. Casey's stark performance gives it a distinctly melancholy aura.
With a more upbeat musical setting featuring guitar is The Town of Athlone, one of several song about war and its consequences. In this case, it's the story of a young mother, the widow of a soldier killed in war. Though it sounds traditional, it's actually a contemporary song written by one Martin Furay.
Also on the subject of war, is another relatively contemporary song -- from 40 years ago, rather than 200 -- Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle and the Drum. Ms. Casey gives it a haunting treatment accompanied by a set of bagpipes, played by Cillian Vallely.
The great Irish exodus of the mid 19th century has been the fodder of many a song over the years. Ms. Casey does a rather well-known example, Erin's Lovely Home, whose lyrics tell the story of a family who made the trip to America, but only some of whom survived the trip.
Perhaps the most intriguing track to American audiences is the song Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye, which shares a tune with the American Civil War song When Johnny Comes Marching Home. This is a traditional song from the other side of the Atlantic about a solder who returns from war a badly injured amputee.
The CD's oxymoronic title Ships in the Forest comes from a line in the closing song I Once a Loved a Lass, written from a man's point of view. He apparently let his love slip from his hands, and she marries someone else. In his despair, we wants to do himself in.
For such a beautiful-sounding album, Karan Casey's new CD Ships in the Forest is a collection of really sad songs, ranging from love lost to wars, tragedies and massacres. Of course, that is the stuff of old folk songs, and that was her aim, in plunging into the traditional material on this album. And with the stark, spare accompaniment, the songs are in a way, made more powerful by Ms. Casey's superb performances: poignant, but never maudlin, achieving their impact through understatement, and irony through the beauty of the music.
Our grade for sound quality is a one of our relatively rare "A's." Ms. Casey's vocals are nicely recorded, with a good balance between intimacy and atmosphere. The dynamic range is also decent, by contemporary standards.
This may or may not be the kind of album to play when you're feeling blue. The lyrics can bring a tear to the eye, but at the same time, one can't help but derive great pleasure from these memorable performances by one of the great voices in contemporary Celtic music.
(c) Copyright 2008 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.

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Songlines, Geoff Wallis

**** Confident, sharp, and to the point" Casey gets the job done.

Karan Casey doesn't just wear her heart on her sleeve, it sits there throbbing and pounding, suffusing her songs with a vigorous, iron sense of purpose. The woman from County Waterford with the golden voice has so far produced three impressive solo albums (not counting her work with Solas) but Chasing The Sun is a massive leap forward.
It's not just the finely tuned settings of Casey's voice against the sparse backdrop of guitar, bouzouki or mandolin (supported by Ewen Vernal's understated bass-playing) which puts this album on a higher level than her previous releases. There are also the subtle injections of Niall Vallely's concertina, for starters, and a sensitive use of overdubbed vocal harmonies.
Key to it all is that, far more than its three predecessors, Chasing The Sun successfully marries a mix of traditional but sharp-tongued songs - such as the epic unaccompanied ballad "Jimmy Whelan" - with contemporary material that reflects Casey's rising status as one of Ireland's most politically-charged singers.
Her own compositions reveal increasing confidence and incisive social awareness, not least "When Will We All Be Free", which attacks Ireland's current policies on immigration. Above all, however, the songs are invigorated by her gorgeous, sensual and utterly knowing voice.

Living Tradition, Debbie Koritsas

'Chasing The Sun', produced by percussionist John Anthony (who was behind Casey's debut release, 'Songlines'), marks a return to a pure, acoustic recording style for this Waterford-born singer-songwriter. Recorded at Casey's home in Ireland, these 13 songs constitute an exquisite listening experience – subtlety seems to be the name of the game here, both vocally and instrumentally.
The album has the potential to become overshadowed by contemporaneous singer-songwriter releases such as Kate Rusby's 'The Girl Who Couldn't Fly', but this beautifully lyrical, acoustic album should not be overlooked – this is traditional Irish song at its best, and Casey's voice is at once haunting and pure. She now has 3 solo albums to her credit – 'Songlines', 'The Winds Begin To Sing', and 'Distant Shore' – and this fourth offering stands tall alongside its predecessors. She contributes 7 of her own compositions here; I've found myself listening time and again to self-penned numbers such as 'When Will We All Be Free', with rhythm-defining guitar-playing from Paul Meehan and Robbie Overson. Double bassist Ewen Vernal expresses himself sublimely on 'The Time Will Pass'. Niall Vallely's concertina playing underpins many songs very subtly. But it is Karan Casey's voice that draws you in from start to finish – this album's a real grower.
Flautist/piper Barry Kerr contributes three beautiful songs, with discreetly expressed political undertones – there's nothing 'in your face' about this album. The two traditional songs reveal Casey's voice at its most haunting – her lone, stark, ethereal voice has the power and grace to carry traditional songs such as 'The Brown And The Yellow Ale' with strength and absolute confidence.
This album has irresistible, addictive qualities that make it very hard to switch off from.

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Folk Roundabout

Karan, former lead singer of Irish-American band Solas, released a wonderful third solo album Distant Shore only a short time ago; here's its followup, which concentrates even more on Karan's own songwriting talent. Six of the thirteen tracks are her own compositions this time round, and rather lovely they are too. Two of my favourite tracks on this CD happen to be among this half-dozen, in fact: the gorgeous opening (title) track, and the atmospheric Bright Winter's Day with its gently choppy rhythmic staccato. You'll probably think me crazy, but on at least two songs (the title track and This Time Will Pass) I was rather reminded – in a quite nice way, I hasten to add – of Kate Rusby, most especially in the way the melodic line reflects a quasi-traditional idiom, although I also detected a certain resemblance in Karan's tonal phrasing and shaping too at times (though Karan's voice lacks the more overtly girlish sweetness of Kate's singing). Aside, then, from Karan's own compositions, Chasing The Sun contains three by Barry Kerr (a young musician from Co. Armagh) and one by Robbie O'Connell, while there's also a delicious arrangement of Burns' Lady Mary Anne, the remainder being arrangements of traditional songs. Another feature of Chasing The Sun which I really like is Karan's deliberate decision to keep the accompanying instrumentation simple and acoustic, to achieve something very close to a live sound; for this she uses just the members of her long-standing band: Niall Vallely (concertina), Robbie Overson (guitar), Ewan Vernal (double bass) and Paul Meehan (guitar, mandolin, bouzouki), with just a couple of tracks adding Michael Aharon (piano) or Erik Johnson or John Anthony (percussion). This was a wise decision, for the immediate yet relaxed demeanour of Karan's singing is matched closely by the close, neat sound (credit here to Niall in his role as Karan's co-producer). But I can't end the review without mentioning my final choices for CD highlights, the two traditional songs which Karan performs without accompaniment – the delightfully poised The Brown And Yellow Ale and the more sombre ballad Jimmy Whelan. The latter rounds off this lovely release in fine fashion.

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Swedish (roots) music magazine, Lira, issue 4/2005, Lars Fahli

Soulful. After making herself a name as the vocalist of Solas, Karan Casey has established herself firmly as a solo artist, strong of feeling and integrity. She interprets both traditional and modern material with the same easiness and charm. Chasing The Sun is her fourth album and consists mainly of original material, in traditional, acoustic form. The album touches on well-known folk themes, like love and oppression. Casey's voice caresses and enchants. It is a source of restrained passion. As a storyteller she understates more than overstates. The music (guitars, double bass, concertina, percussion) is flexible and supportive but can occasionally seem superfluous. The six minutes long a cappella version of Jack Whelan, which ends the album, says it all. It can hardly be more beautiful than that.

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Washinton Post, Geoffrey Himes

Karan Casey's first three solo albums (1997's "Songlines," the 2000 children's album "Seal Maiden: A Celtic Musical" and 2001's "The Winds Begin to Sing") were dominated by traditional Irish folk songs. As she did in the group Solas, she sang those tunes in a silky soprano that always seemed to be holding back a little of its power for the sake of intimacy. On her new solo effort, Casey shifts her focus to contemporary folk-pop songs and emerges as the Irish equivalent of Emmylou Harris.
The arrangements are still acoustic but with a looser, more impressionistic feel, accenting the lyrics more than the pub rhythms. Casey's singing is, if anything, even more understated, as if she were delivering these monologues close at hand. Like Harris, she proves a terrific judge of songs, and she alerts American audiences to several gifted Irish songwriters. John Spillane and Louis de Paor open "The Song of Lies" with the striking couplet, "And her mouth was as red as the fresh fallen snow," and Ger Wolfe details the pleasures of a romantic walk through the Irish countryside down "The Curra Road."
In recent years, Casey has recorded and toured as part of "The Crossing," Tim O'Brien's exploration of the links between Irish and Appalachian cultures. O'Brien repays the favor not only by co-writing "Another Day," an absorbing, banjo-driven contemplation of mortality, but also by singing and picking on several other songs. Casey's political sympathies are revealed on Ewan MacColl's anti-death penalty narrative "The Ballad of Tim Evans" and on Mary Brookbank's sweatshop lament "The Jute Mill Song." Best of all is Billy Bragg's title tune, an immigration song whose lovely melody finally gets the lustrous vocal it deserves.

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Sing Out, Rob Weir

Karan Casey's latest solo venture is a thing of rare beauty. It should also dispel any lingering notions that the Celtic genre can contain her. There are but two traditional songs on the eleven-track CD, and she draws from an eclectic group of songwriters for the rest. She opens with a cover of Billy Bragg's "Distant Shore" that is as fragile as antique crystal. Casey's wispy vocals dance in mirror lockstep with James Grant's acoustic guitar, while producer Donald Shaw's accordion fills the background. Casey maintains this quiet balance, even as electric instruments enter the mix. To signal her intent to offer a varied brew, Casey follows by finding the seam between Irish and bluegrass music on a cover of Tim O'Brien's "Another Day," O'Brien himself lending backing vocals. Shaw once again keeps the instrumentation in subdued check, though everything from bouzouki to Wurlitzer organ is feathered into the score. Casey later returns to Appalachian stylings on "The Jute-Mill Song," and her own "Quiet of the Night" would be more at home at a hazy, mellow piano bar than a peat-smoked Irish kitchen dance.
Casey does not abandon her roots, however. On "Lord MacDonald's" she keens and croons in the finest traditional style. This piece is a stunner, with Casey's tongue-twisting lead gorgeously backed by Capercaillie's Karen Matheson, Dezi Donnelly's flying fiddle notes, and tasteful percussion from James Mackintosh and Signy Jacobson. As good as this is, Casey surpasses it on "Bata is Bothar," in which she uses a tape delay to echo her own vocal and uses the cadence of the Gaelic language as its own percussion. It is one of two songs written by John Spillane and Louis de Paor. The other, "Song of Lies," is as heartbreakingly beautiful as "Bata" is exciting. Special kudos go to Donald Shaw for his production work on this album; it is among his best work in years.

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Boston Globe, Alan Lewis

Karan Casey is well-known along the folk circuit for her years as lead singer of the great Irish-American band, Solas. She has since gone solo, and her last album, the essential "Winds Begin to Sing," was one of the finest releases of 2001. Casey's voice is among the loveliest in folk music, and she is a wonderful interpreter of both contemporary and traditional material. Her use of grace notes and vibrato has become remarkably subtle. Much of the music here is slow and pretty, though the songs can be bittersweet, as when she takes the part of one "So full of hope but prone to grief." The gentle "Quiet of the Night," with a beautiful chorus, is typical of this disc's sympathetic and uncluttered arrangements. Casey is often at her best on songs with a quick pace. But here, she excels on a midtempo pastoral love tune, "The Curra Road," with the refrain, "We won't worry about the winter ... In the summer we'll go laughing, way down to the river, down the dusty road." "The Curra Road" is a classic of grace and simplicity and should become a folk standard.

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Sunday Herald, Glasgow, Sue Wilson *****

Formerly a frontline attraction with the Irish/ American band Solas, Karan Casey has long been regarded as one of Ireland's most enchanting singers. Her third solo release is a wonderfully eloquent and moving exercise in bridge-building, as Casey traces old and new connections between musical traditions and eras, spanning both the Irish Sea and the Atlantic.
The opening title track, for instance, is a Billy Bragg cover, putting a contemporary spin on the classic emigration ballad, while the Tim O'Brien/Darrell Scott song, Another Day, sounds like a halfway stage in Celtic music's evolution into traditional country.
There's a delicate Americana gloss, too, on Mary Brooksbank's The Jute Mill Song, conjuring the weariness of production-line workers everywhere, while other Scottish material includes a forlorn version of Matt McGinn's Just A Note, and a silky duet with Capercaillie's Karen Matheson on the Gaelic ballad Lord MacDonald's, set to a subtle dancefloor pulse.
Casey's sole songwriting contribution is the delicate, meditative Quiet Of The Night. A stellar list of guests, including O'Brien and John Spillane and on backing vocals, Dirk Powell on banjo, concertinist Niall Vallely and Mike McGoldrick on whistles, is deployed with consummate taste and restraint. The album's resulting air of understatement further highlights the beauty of Casey's singing and the power of her chosen material.

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Hot Press, Sarah Mc Quaid (9.5/10)

Karan Casey is one of those rare singers whose voice is such a beautiful pristine instrument that she could make the direst rubbish sound heartfelt and poignant. Happily, such feats aren't necessary here: for her third solo album, she's once again chosen material worthy of the gift she possess, not least of which is a self-penned number, 'Quiet of the Night' - the first she's recorded. Elsewhere, there are songs by the likes of Tim O'Brien, Billy Bragg and the writing team of Louis de Paor and John Spillane (who joins her for a duet, as does Karen Matheson of the Scottish band Capercaillie). Multi-instrumentalist Donald Shaw, also of Capercaillie, produced this CD, but the overall feel is more Tennessee bluegrass than Highland thistle, thanks to the presence of five-string banjo player Dirk Powell on a number of tracks.

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Los Angeles Times, Ute Lemper ***

Casey's soprano is best known from her recordings and performances with the Celtic band Solas. In her third solo effort, she reaches out from the traditional repertoire to include songs by folk-rock's Billy Bragg and bluegrass' Tim O'Brien. But it is Casey's voice, as pure and clear as the crystal from County Waterford, where she was born, that brings an eclectic set of Celtic-related music to life.

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Irish Music Magazine, Sean Laffey

Produced by Donald Shaw in Scotland it features a mixture of contemporary and traditional material, (in fact mostly modern) with only two of the tracks cited as traditional. The backing line-up represents the young aristocracy of Celtic music, including vocalists Tim O'Brien, Karen Matheson and John Spillane. Karan's regular band of Robbie Overson and Niall Vallely are augmented by the likes of Dirk Powell, Michael McGoldrick (who plays both flutes and a mean bodhrán), Dezi Donnelly, Paul Meehan, James Grant and Cillian Vallely.
The contemporary songs come from the pens of John Spillane & Louis de Paor, ('Bata is Bóthar' and the 'Song of Lies) Billy Bragg (the opening Solas style 'Distant Shore'), Ger Wolfe, ('The Curra Road') Tim O'Brien & Darrell Scott, ('Another Day'), Ewan McColl ('The Ballad of Tim Evans') and Karan adds one of her own with ('Quiet of the Night'). The Two traditional songs are the English radical ballad 'The Four Loom Weaver' and the Scots 'Lord MacDonalds' which is given a Donald Shaw waulking-rock blás. The overall sound is a mix of Capercaillie meets Solas with enough of the distinctive trio that is the Karan Casey Band shining through to let you know this is serious talent at work. Her vocal abilities have been sung loudly before, here she's joined by a crew of the most empathetic musicians, from the rollicking jaunty band sound with the simple underplaying of Dezi Donnelly's fiddle on 'Lord McDonalds' to the sparse banjo accompaniment of the 'The Jute Mill Song', they know what to do, when to cruise, when to rev it up. This album has variety without crass novelty and consistency without predictability. Full of new songs that refuse to pander to a Mid-Atlantic singer songwriter zeit gheist and old songs that have been kissed back to life. There's nobody else doing this sort of folk thing at the moment, it's where Kate Rusby ought to be, where Niamh Parsons sometimes briefly and loosely went, Karan's out in front and from the looks of this will be for many years to come.

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Birmingham Post, Mike Davies ****

Former lead singer of Irish-American Celtic folk outfit Solas, the County Waterford colleen's already carved out an impressive solo career over the course of the two albums released since she left to start a family. Unlike its predecessors, while there are traditional numbers such a and Lord MacDonald's (sung in Scots Gaelic, a language Casey doesn't speak) the emphasis is more on the contemporary. Here are songs by Billy Bragg (the wearily beautiful title track), American bluegrass star Tim O'Brien (Another Day), Mary Brookbank (The Jude Mill Song the female equivalent of the preceding trad The Four Loom Weaver) and the great Ewan MacColl (The Ballad of Tim Evans) nestling alongside contributions by Irish writers such as Ger Wolfe (The Curra Road) and her self-penned, intimately delivered Quiet Of The Night.
Love ballads, songs of homesickness, immigration, sweat labour, and the miscarriage of justice paint the emotional landscape in both personal and political colours, etched out in simple acoustic arrangements making haunting use of fiddle, low whistle, flute, mandolin and accordion in a manner that evokes Dolly Parton's recent return to her Appalachian roots.
Name guests include O'Brien, Karen Matheson and Donald Shaw from Capercaillie, and Balfa Toujours banjo man Dirk Powell, but its Casey's pure voice that strikes the most resonant notes, forging an album that while unassumingly understated slowly stakes a strong claim as Celtic CD of the year.

back to top, Christina Roden

The Waterford-born singer Karan Casey has been on a highly personal journey since she left the Irish-American supergroup Solas. Her solo albums, of which this is the third, reveal a questing nature and a deceptively fragile-sounding, vibrato-enhanced soprano. At times, Casey brings the early Dolly Parton to mind, especially when she's essaying modal ballads that recall the Celtic-derived American Appalachian tradition and its tributaries. Her material ranges from Irish and Scottish folkways to modern story songs, many of which deal with immigration and other forms of displacement. The poignant opening tune, composed by British songwriter-activist Billy Bragg, is a meditation about a frightened, uprooted newcomer dealing with homesickness and hostile natives. The sensuous yet coolly ascetic semi-acoustic arrangements feature prominent banjo, fiddle, low whistle, and accordion vamps, plus an atmospheric solo piano. Guest artists Karen Matheson (lead vocals in Capercaillie ), bluegrass singer-mandolinist Tim O'Brien, and American roots player Dirk Powell all make indelible impressions.

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George Graham, As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/12/2003

The popularity of Celtic music has paved the way for a younger generation of performers who have gone beyond the strictly-traditional, and who have moved into new and interesting stylistic hybrids. One of the brightest lights on this scene has been the Irish-American band Solas, who since the mid 1990s, has been combining a remarkable level musicianship with a decidedly eclectic approach, doing everything from Woody Guthrie songs to very traditional Irish music to original compositions over a series of acclaimed albums.

For the first four years of the group's existence, their lead vocalist was Karan Casey, who has just released her third solo recording called Distant Shore.

Ms. Casey grew up in County Waterford in Ireland and says she was surrounded by music in her family. At an early age, she studied classical vocal technique, and started performing with the Foran Family, who were well-known folk musicians in Ireland. Later, she discovered jazz, and found herself enchanted with the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. She came to sing jazz and pop in various pub bands in Ireland, and then became a member of Atlantic Bridge. It was while she was with that group performing in New York that she was recruited by Seamus Egan along with Winifred Horan, John Doyle and others for Solas. Egan was already a championship musician while still in his teens, on multiple instruments. Solas brought together some of the finest young Irish and Celtic musicians, and Ms. Casey was a prominent part with her superb, downright beautiful vocals.

Departing amicably from Solas to start a family, Ms. Casey began a series of solo albums and a somewhat reduced touring schedule. She continued in the Solas tradition of outstanding musicianship and varied material. On her last album, she even did a Billie Holiday song.

Her new release, Distant Shore continues her musical journey, with an interesting collection of songs from much people as English protest singer Billy Bragg, American bluegrass and country artist Tim O'Brien, the late Scottish folksinger Ewan MacColl and even one original piece, from an artist who does not do much writing. She also has a number of guests, including O'Brien, vocalist Karen Matheson and multi-instrumentalist Donald Shaw of the Scottish band Capercaillie, American folk banjo player Dirk Powell, plus some of the musicians who appeared on her last CD The Winds Begin to Sing, including Shaw and bassist Ewan Vernal.

As is usual for a recording that sounds like old traditional British Isles music, the lyrics can run from tender, poetic love ballads, to a song about murder and violence. Actually, there is less of the death and destruction among Distant Shore's musical narratives than on her last CD, which was full of it. But, as was the case last time, it's a fascinating juxtaposition to hear Ms. Casey's wonderful voice song a song about a man facing the gallows for a murder he did not commit. The instrumentation is not always purely in the Irish style, with some electric instruments, synthesizer, electric guitar.

The CD begins with the Billy Bragg song that comprises the title track. Ms. Casey's interpretation of Distant Shore is light years from that of Bragg, and she gives the song a very nice treatment. It is one of a few songs on the CD about immigration or being away from home. From a quiet beginning the arrangement gains momentum, but never distracts attention from Ms. Casey's voice.

Ms. Casey has done some touring with Nashville-based Tim O'Brien, who in turn has been doing some Irish collaborations. Ms. Casey performs Another Day, written by O'Brien with Darrell Scott, a really outstanding composition with philosophical lyrics. O'Brien lends a hand on backing vocals, while Dirk Powell's clawhammer-style banjo playing helps to give the piece a bittersweet sound.

One of the most powerful songs on the CD is The Ballad of Tim Evans, written by Ewan MacColl, who also wrote the Roberta Flack hit The First Tim Ever I Saw Your Face. The song recounts the prosecution and persecution of an accused killer, who is hanged, but turns out to be innocent. O'Brien also provides the backing vocals.

One of the most lyrically intriguing pieces is The Song of Lies, written by John Spillane and Louis de Paor. Ms. Casey does the song as a tender ballad, while the lyrics are full of amusing non-sequitors and contradictory metaphors.

Also musically melancholy in sound is Just a Note, by Matt McGinn. It's another song of homesickness. It takes the form of a tender letter from an itinerant worker to his wife.

There are two tracks not in English. Lord MacDonald's is in Scots Gaelic, a language Ms. Casey did not know, and she said it was a challenge after agreeing to do the song with Capercaillie's Karen Matheson. The appealing reel translates as a kind of joyful love song, about young man courting a girl named Morag.

In Irish is Bata is Bóthar, which translates as "The Stick and the Road," and is another song about being away from one's homeland in search of work and a better life.

The one original song by Ms. Casey is the well-named Quiet Is the Night. It's a very pretty love song, but is perhaps the least-Celtic sounding song on the CD.

Karen Casey's new CD Distant Shore is another outstanding recording by perhaps the finest voice to come out of the new Celtic scene. In addition to her thoroughly enchanting vocals, Ms. Casey comes up with an intriguing collection of material from a rather wide variety of mostly non-traditional sources, from Billy Bragg to Ms. Casey herself. In the tradition of her previous band Solas, the musicianship is superb and the treatments of the songs very tasteful. The arrangements provide a Celtic aura, but often lead to other stylistic venues, but without distracting from the songs or Ms. Casey's voice. As on her last CD in 2001, Capercaillie's Donald Shaw served as producer, and did an excellent job balancing the eclecticism with the traditional elements.

Our grade for sound quality is definitely an "A," with the acoustic instruments well-treated, and the subtleties of the arrangements nicely preserved. The CD also has a better than average dynamic range, helping to give the recording more immediacy.

A decade or so ago, the Celtic scene was dominated by performances of traditional music. Karen Casey is an excellent example of an talented artist building on the traditions and taking the music in new directions. But whether or not you're much of a Celtic music fan, her CD Distant Shore, is an instantly appealing and memorable recording.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved. This review may not be copied to another Web site without written permission.

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High-Level Music at Highline Ballroom
Irish Echo, Earle Hitchner
[Published on March 26, 2008, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City. Copyright (c) Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]

It had been a while since I last saw Waterford-born vocalist Karan Casey perform, so on March 13 I came to the Highline Ballroom on West 16th Street in Manhattan's Chelsea area with the expectation that I would hear something similar from her: uncommonly skilled, sensitive singing with proficient accompaniment.
By chance I met Casey inside the club a half-hour before showtime, and she told me of an ordeal she had suffered on March 8 in Calgary. While performing on stage there, she was robbed. The thief absconded with her Irish passport and a five-figure amount of cash that she and her bandmates had earned halfway through their North American winter tour. She had to go to Ottawa in subfreezing weather to sort out a new passport, and by the time she got to Manhattan for the March 13 performance, she was fighting a chest cold.
On top of that, two of her regular bandmates were absent: cellist Kate Ellis and guitarist Robbie Overson. Concertinist Niall Vallely, with whom Casey has two young children in Cork, was filling in for Ellis, while guitarist Ross Martin, a member of the Scottish group Harem Scarum, was filling in for Overson.
So it would have been perfectly understandable if the depleted Casey and her three colleagues--regular bandmate Caoimhin Vallely on electric keyboard, his brother Niall, and Ross Martin--could only muster a professionally workmanlike performance in the Highline Ballroom.
Neither my expectation for something similar from her nor my expectation for just a serviceable performance were met. Instead, Casey's performance was honed, assured, and adventurous. It was more than courageous. It was stunning.
She opened starkly with the antiwar ballad "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye" and followed with "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair." Casey's setting for the latter song may have been inspired by a live rendition from one of her idols, Nina Simone (1933-2003), on the 1959 album "Nine Simone at Town Hall."
Still misunderstood and under-appreciated (especially by critics) in the U.S., North Carolina-born Nina Simone had a strong, defiant personality and an acute sense of injustice. Both informed her singing of such songs as "Mississippi Goddam," which she wrote after Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered and which was widely banned in the South, and "Strange Fruit," written by Lewis Allan, the pen name of Abel Meeropol, a New York City schoolteacher who adopted the two children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their execution for espionage in 1953. Casey acknowledged Simone's version of "Strange Fruit" in a brief track note for her own rendition on "The Winds Begin to Sing" album in 2001.
Like Simone, Casey bristles at bigotry and inequity of all stripes. And like Simone, Casey knows that protest songs can sometimes be more effectively delivered without shouting, as she demonstrated in her singing of "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye."
Delicate keyboard playing was the instrumental framework for both Casey's and Simone's versions of "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," and a soft, sultry, nuanced vocal from each singer overlaid that backup. In the case of Caoimhin Vallely, who may be the finest accompanist Casey has ever had, he brought a Bill Evans-like touch to supporting Casey's vocal, which conveyed some of Simone's smoky undercurrent.
But what stood out above all in Casey's opening performance was a magnificently arranged medley of four songs linked together with instrumental ligatures. This vocal medley included "Dunlavin Green" and "I Once Loved a Lass," and all four songs, each a separate story unto itself, formed an overarching narrative of mesmerizing melancholy. During this segment, the window into feeling disappeared. It was just feeling--naked, fragile, and impossible to shake off.
Casey said she wanted to follow with a "happy song," and true to her nature, the "happy song" she sang without accompaniment was Leon Rosselson's ferocious indictment of greed, "The World Turned Upside Down (The Diggers' Song)."
For her encore, she sang without accompaniment Jean Ritchie's "One, I Love," as direct and poignant a love song as you'll ever hear. It concluded a set that also featured some deft tune playing by the two Vallely brothers and Martin....
...Inside the well-designed Highline Ballroom, a relatively new and promising venue for Manhattan concerts, the double bill of Lunasa and the Karan Casey Band proved to be the right musical antidote to the emerald-dyed kitsch customarily leading up to St. Patrick's Day.

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Bangor Daily News, Tom Groening

(Live review from National Folk Festival 2003 in Bangor ,Maine)

Thanks to Riverdance and the Boston-Ireland connection, Celtic music can hardly be described as exotic here in New England. In fact, most of us have heard enough Irish, Scottish and English ballads, jigs and reels to be able to tell whether they're played well. The Karan Casey Band not only exceeded that standard in its performance at the Railroad Stage on Saturday, but successfully juiced up the traditional Celtic sound with a splash of acoustic funk here and a dab of blues there.The focal point of the four-piece band was Casey's voice. Silky, sensuous and with the timbre of a well-played flute, its pitch-perfect trills on up-tempo songs and long-sustained notes on ballads spanned the range from joy to heartbreak that can be found in the Celtic tradition. The band - Robby Overson on acoustic guitar, Niall Vallely on concertina and whistles, and Steve Nayone on bass - was a worthy match, providing a strong groove or a delicate coloring as needed in the 10-song set."The Madness of My Heart" was a standout, as Casey alternated between English and Gaelic lyrics, while Overson played insistent riffs on guitar and Vallely added blues notes on - of all things - the concertina. Casey and Overson scored points with the audience for keeping their cool as a hovering helicopter competed with them, and later as gusts of wind knocked down equipment on stage.

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