FolkWorld #70 11/2019
© Dai Woosnam

Hieroglyphs That Tell the Tale

When you are offered the chance to review the latest album from Waterford-born singer Karan Casey, you don’t hesitate. You just know not just in your bones, but in your very water, that it is going to be a work that exudes gravitas, and yet won’t settle for “safety first”, but will take a few risks.

Karan Casey

Artist Video Karan Casey

And after playing this album three times all the way through, I can say that I was proved right to be enthusiastic, even if she did not quite pull off all she attempted.

The first thing that struck me here was the production by Capercaillie’s Donald Shaw. If you were expecting an intimate album where you closed your eyes and imagined Karan at the other end your living room, serenading you with minimal’d better think again. This whole album is a big production, where she is joined by no fewer than 23 musicians and harmony vocalists. I could pad this review out by listing them all, but I won’t. Just take it from me though that they are a stellar bunch, and their quality shines through from first to last.

Of the ten tracks, two are penned by Karan (and a third co-penned). The others are mainly contemporary songs that she endeavours to put her stamp on. Of these, some are true triumphs on her part: it was a toss-up for me whether her reading of Janis Ian’s I’m Still Standing Here, or Patty Griffin’s much recorded Mary, took the prize for standout track.

On the former, she was joined on vocals by Maura O’Connell and Karen Matheson (see what I mean about stellar names?!) and they all basked in the glow of the glorious mandolin of Innes White. I have always loved that song since I first heard Janis sing it, and was much moved by Karan’s a cappella version on the eve of the Irish abortion vote...but here somehow the group ensemble raise it to another level.

Karan Casey: Hieroglyphs That Tell the Tale

Karan Casey "Hieroglyphs That Tell the Tale", Vertical Records, 2018

Incidentally, lest you be wondering at the somewhat unusual album title: it comes from a verse in this Janis Ian song, viz. ...

See these bruises, see these scars? 
Hieroglyphs that tell the tale 
You can read them in the dark 
Through your finger tips like Braille.

And talking of an ensemble version raising a song: it is pretty much the same story with Patty Griffin’s most lauded song, Mary. Karan is ably supported by Aoife O’Donovan’s classy understated vocal harmony and some soaring violin and some authoritative guitar. I have a confession to make: this song that so many artistes regard as profound in the extreme, has never ever really yielded up its meaning to me. That said however, I can see its emotional reach is quite considerable, and it certainly got me too in its grip here.

A very good album where Karan quickly overcame her one real failure of the ten: the opening track. The idea to turn Dylan’s Hollis Brown into a big production number, was certainly different. But sometimes, different can be the enemy of good. But hey...maybe I had my ears on wrong for the opener: I certainly fell into line with the other nine, and loved the big brass arrangement in her approach to Eliza Gilkyson’s Man of God. Exhilarating. Enough to make George W Bush swallow hard.

Photo Credits: Karan Casey (by Walkin' Tom).

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