Judith Gennett wrote this review.
Ben Sands, from the legendary Sands Family, is from Newry, County Down in Northern Ireland. He sings and sometimes writes gentle songs that can have a punch beyond their subtlety. These two albums Take Your Time and Roots & Branches are his lone studio albums to date.
“There is nothing boisterous, false, or pretentious about his singing,” read the liner notes to Roots & Branches. Sands never raises his voice! You might think of the term “still waters run deep” from his choice of songs – there’s nothing startling on the surface, but some definite thoughts in the current that runs below.
Take Your Time is named for a track authored by Allan Taylor, learnt in a pub somewhere in Germany. The lyrics beg a beloved woman not to make the wrong decision just to be free. Ian Walker’s “Hawks And Eagles” is on this album too. This song about South African racial struggles has always fascinated me, because the tune and arrangement (my remembrance is of a similar arrangement from North Sea Gas) are so jaunty, yet the topic so serious and violent. My favorite songs, though, are on Roots & Branches – two in sequence about lost love. The Sands original “Breakfast In Bremen” is written and sung in Sand’s calmly perky style:
I walked in the sunshine and wished it was rain
Something to wash off my sadness and pain.
It is followed by is “Supermarket Wine” from the pen of Mickey O’Connell, a detail-filled song about a young couple on the road. The woman eventually does take that flight to be free. These romantic disasters add up to a melancholy yet somehow lighthearted album.
Roots & Branches is less memorable in its covers, not because they are less in evidence, but likely because he covers North American material. For many Celtophiles, they will lack “Euro-charm.” Why escape to Ireland to hear the internal landscapes of Tim O’Brien and Kate Wolf? These tracks include two time-tattered tunes that, for my taste, I would as soon no one cover at all: Stan Rogers’ tear-jerker “First Christmas Away From Home,” and Joe South’s countrified “Games People Play.” Sands has also included a couple cuties, including Bob Gibson’s “Going Tomorrow.” “But I have to go to Morrow, why do I have to go today?” he sings, sounding very Irish. Another is a fun, detail-strewn original “Back on the Diet on Monday.” Both are good for a genuinely humorous break – and in the latter case a depauperate breakfast of fruit and skimmed cottage cheese. Finally, Sands’ original “In Berlin” unexpectedly calls out as the most interesting and most depressing song in the album, telling of a woman who still sets a place for her lover years after the war. There are also a number of traditional tracks on the albums, gentle and unassuming in the general spirit of these two discs. Yet they capture the spirit of Irish traditional song as well as many specialists might. Sometimes, as on “The Verdant Braes of ‘Screen,” (Roots & Branches) Sands voice seems richer and more vibrant singing these songs that have stood the test of time.
A real treat are the instrumental breaks that feature Sands’ sometimes-spirited playing. On “My Mother Won’t Let Me Marry,” you can hear his instrumentalist alter-ego raise a little hell on mandolin and tenor banjo, accompanied by a group of people at a party singing the chorus! The backing music varies and the songs often sound “American” – folk-acoustic with perhaps a bit of whistle and mando. At times the cello of Nuala Tohill or other strings by John Fitzpatrick is tastefully added as a sure mood depressor. Conversely a bit of pipes by whistle-player Brendan Monaghan is a rare but pleasant treat, and they make “Games People Play” worth listening to!
Whatever the interpretation of ambience, Sand’s Irish vocals are always pleasant and warm, and the albums are well produced. They certainly navigate the border of Irish contemporary and traditional music, of past and present.
(Spring Records, 1993)
(Spring Records, 1998)