Solas keeps reinventing itself and yet somehow manages the trick of always staying the same: reliably, predictably brilliant.
This kind of success is all the more remarkable considering the number of personnel changes since the band burst upon the scene in 1994. Only multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan and fiddler Winifred Horan are original members of the band. Over the years, though, the rest of the lineup has changed: three guitarists, two button accordion players and three singers. That’s not to suggest tumult is the inevitable result. On the contrary, every new musician has brought fresh perspectives to the party, and so the band and its sound have evolved. You can hear subtle changes in each of the nine albums Solas released between 1996 and 2008.
Now, along comes album No. 10, “The Turning Tide,” the second featuring singer Mairead Phelan. All of the essential elements you’ve come to expect from Solas are there. Start with mind-blowing, high-energy arrangements from Seamus Egan (“Hugo’s Big Reel”) and guitarist Éamon McElholm (“The Crows of Killimer”/Box Reel #2″/”Boys of Malin”/”The Opera House”). When the band performs at the World Cafe this St. Patrick’s Day, you can predict that those will inspire enthusiastic “whoops.” The band has been cranking out bread and butter numbers like that from day one. Add in a clever confection from Winifred Horan—”A Waltz for Mairead,” which reminds me a bit of “The Highlands of Holland” from the 2003 album, “Another Day.” Now tack on the happily tangled rhythms of box player Mick McCauley’s “Trip to Kareol” (which reminds me vaguely of “Who’s in the What Now” from “Edge of Silence”).
It could all seem formulaic, but if it is, it’s a formula for sure-fire success. At its core, regardless of who is playing the guitar or accordion—and Solas attracts the best—the band remains consistently excellent. And even if some of the selections seem familiar, Solas infuses fresh new energy and excitement into them.
Into this dependable mix steps Mairead Phelan, who joined Solas in 2008, replacing Deirdre Scanlan (who replaced Karan Casey). Phelan made her debut on the last CD, “For Love and Laughter.” Her first outing provided a tantalyzing clue as to what was to come. On “The Turning Tide,” she really comes into her own, and adds her own special imprint on the band.
It helps that she has great material to work with. I’d love to know the process Solas follows for picking tunes. On “The Turning Tide,” as always, the band has discriminating taste—for example, “A Sailor’s Life,” the old English folk song popularized by Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention; Bruce Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad”; and “Girl in the War” by Josh Ritter, whose writing invites comparisons to Springsteen and to the young Dylan.
But great tune selection can only take you so far. The singer has to be up to the task.
Mairead Phelan is there.
I was prepared to like “Ghost of Tom Joad”—it’s a great song to begin with—but Solas adds its own intriguing interpretation. Seamus Egan opens on banjo, and what follows is an arrangement that sounds more like a slow march than a folk tune. Phelan’s soft, sweet voice lends a plaintive quality to the Springsteen lyrics. The Boss would be pleased.
“A Girl in the War” was an interesting choice. Posters on the lyrics boards seem hopelessly divided on the song’s meaning. Does it have religious overtones, or is it an explicit anti-war tune? I’ll side with the latter. Check out to the lyrics and draw your own conclusions: “Peter said to Paul/You know all those words that we wrote/Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go/But now talkin’ to God is Laurel beggin’ Hardy for a gun/I got a girl in the war, man I wonder what it is we done.”
Phelan’s reading of the song is spot on. She draws you in and makes you feel every note of this gorgeous, haunting song. And, again, it helps that she has a superb band behind her—on this tune, including the Philly dobro player Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner—and the advantage of a lovely, restrained arrangement to match her delivery.
So what’s new about this version of Solas is clear in the form of a talented singer whose talents are really still just emerging.
Along with Brenner, “The Turning Tide” features contributions by long-time members of the Solas extended family—drummer Ben Wittman (he blows the doors off in “Hugo’s Big Reel”) and bassman Chico Huff, with percussion by John Anthony, who also recorded, mixed and mastered the CD.
Take a listen to “The Turning Tide.” (You’ll hear tracks on Marianne MacDonald’s radio show “Come West Along the Road” on WTMR AM 800 Sunday at noon.) I promise you’ll hear something new. And yet the same.