July 2006

Susan McKeown - Blackthorn: Irish Love Songs
World Village 468054
Format: CD
Released: 2006

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Two things you know when you hear Susan McKeown’s Blackthorn: Irish Love Songs CD: This person loves to sing, and she has dedicated herself to doing it well. It is also safe to say that McKeown cherishes traditional folk songs and strives to give them appeal to modern listeners without sacrificing the straightforward simplicity and succinctness that make them so moving and profound.

Irish-born and trained, McKeown built much of her career in the US as an established part of New York City’s thriving Irish music scene. She still performs widely here. She sings quite a few of the Blackthorn songs in Gaelic, but thoughtfully provides modern-English translations. The liner notes give brief histories of the songs -- a common practice of the early-'60s folk revival, before marketing veered from education, culture and politics toward the singer-songwriter as pop star.

A variety of love songs fills this album, expressing joy, lamenting betrayal, and revealing jealousy. The melodies and tempos vary accordingly, as do the arrangements. A quick favorite of mine was "Dó Ín Dú" ("The Things in Your Heart") with its peppy mixed rhythms and light background vocals. The use of harp lends special poignancy to several songs.

This is a recording with no weak tracks or players. Fiddle, bouzouki, guitar, mandolin, and percussion all lend force to McKeown’s vocals instead of calling too much attention to themselves. Production is clear, unpretentious, and immediate: Close your eyes and you could be in the same room with these artists.