On new album, Casey burns brighter than the Sun

By Dave Aftandilian

Karan Casey is one of the finest Irish traditional singers of her generation. And you’ll have a rare chance to hear her live this weekend at Chicago Gaelic Park’s Irish Fest (cgp-chicago.org/Irish_Fest/irish_fest.htm).

I first fell under the spell of Casey’s voice when I heard her singing with the Irish traditional group Solas at the U of C Folk Festival about 10 years ago. After recording three excellent albums with Solas, Casey embarked on a solo career in 1999. Chasing the Sun, released last month, is her fourth solo album (not counting a fun children’s musical she composed a few years back called Seal Maiden).

With each album, Casey’s singing has become more accomplished, and her choice of songs more daring. On this album, she ranges from unaccompanied sean nos singing on the haunting traditional love-after-death song “Jimmy Whelan”—the high point of the album, in my opinion—to contemporary protest songs, some original and some penned by Armagh writer Barry Kerr. Accompanying instruments include guitar, double bass, drums, and concertina, the last played by Casey’s husband, Niall Vallely (who has also played with the Irish traditional group Nomos).

Of course the main attraction of any Karan Casey album is her voice, and that’s certainly true of Chasing the Sun. She has an uncanny ability to sound simultaneously strong and vulnerable, innocent and knowing. Her singing also has a remarkably intimate feel, as if she were sharing the confidences of her heart and soul with you and you alone. Also, her emotional range is amazing—one moment hushed and introspective, the next raging with righteous anger. Listening to her sing makes you wish time would stand still so you could go on listening forever.

Because Casey’s singing is so impressive, it’s not surprising that my favorite songs on Chasing the Sun are the ones that feature her voice alone and unaccompanied. I’ve already mentioned “Jimmy Whelan;” the other is also a traditional song, “The Brown and the Yellow Ale,” a strange and rather disturbing tale of a husband who has to watch his wife go off to cavort with another man, then take her back anyway. I also loved the third traditional song on the album, a Robert Burns composition called “Lady Mary Anne,” a lighthearted song about a mismatched marriage between a 21-year-old woman and a 16-year-old boy, which was accentuated with lovely concertina touches.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the quality of the songs Karan Casey wrote for this album. I wasn’t particularly optimistic about this at first, because good folk singers are not always good songwriters, and the one original song Casey wrote for her last album Distant Shore was one of the weakest songs on that album. But her songwriting has definitely improved in the meantime. The title track, for instance, written in memory of her grandmother, could have been an overly personal, weepy lament for someone we don’t know, but instead Casey manages to turn it into a fairly subtle take on how immersing ourselves in nature can help us all deal with loss and remembrance. “Bright Winter’s Day” is a really neat love song, too, perfectly capturing the feeling of one of those moments when you watch your partner staring off into space, lost in their own world, and suddenly, paradoxically feel almost unbearably close to them.

However, there are some klinkers here. Singer-songwriters walk a fine line between being too obvious and too obscure, and Casey tends to err on the side of too much earnestness and not enough subtlety. A good example is “Freedom Song,” which contains the following lyrics: “Our voices they will soar/ Until injustice is no more/ Oh freedom, precious freedom.” Even worse, though, are a couple of the songs by contemporary songwriter Barry Kerr. I’m an eco-freak, myself, but even I couldn’t stomach the painfully earnest and plodding lyrics on “Mother Earth’s Revenge”: “You knew the beauty now feel the fear/ As your storm rolls in you better hide/ I’ll make you wish that you weren’t alive.”

Another frustration I have with Chasing the Sun is the accompaniment, which is too often too understated. Usually I complain that the instruments drown out the singer, but in this case, the music often doesn’t do its job of helping Casey really knock a song out of the ballpark. Except for the concertina, which is consistently intricate and interesting (and ought to be foregrounded more than it usually is), the other accompaniment tends to fade into the woodwork on most songs. A good example is “Waiting for the Snow,” a song by Barry Kerr about the downtrodden rising up and overthrowing their oppressors. The feel of the lyrics is militant and righteous, but to really work they need to have some support from the instruments—which they don’t receive. And because the instruments aren’t inspiring, Casey also holds back on this song. Her old bandmates in Solas used to push Casey to really take each song as far as she could; I hope her new band can help her do the same.

Those criticisms aside, Chasing the Sun is a good album and well worth purchasing if you are a fan of traditional Irish music. I’ve also heard Casey and her current band live a couple times, and can promise you that they’ll deliver an excellent show at Gaelic Park. Don’t miss it!