The world is a strange place, full of people who think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. In Europe, where I live, we are crowded with singers and musicians who do their best to sound as American as possible, performing blues, jazz, soul or whatever. And here I am sitting with a CD made by five Americans who play only European music. Can anyone explain this to me? But I am not complaining; Silver Arm do it well, and let no shadow fall on them for loving Celtic music.
Known as Cincinnati’s premier Celtic band, Silver Arm have been around for about 10 years and Never Despair is their second album. They are essentially a four piece, with a ballad singer, Katie Else, singing a few songs with them. On Never Despair she sings on three of the four songs, the remaining eight tracks all being instrumental sets.
The instrumental side is carried by Susan Cross (fiddle), Cindy Matyi (flute, concertina and lead vocals on the fourth song), Stephen Matyi (banjo, bouzouki and guitar) and Tim Benson (pipes, whistles and flute). They are joined by guest musicians Carla Dundee (oboe and whistles) and Mark Hellenberg (assorted percussion).
With three multi instrumentalists in the group, Silver Arm vary their sound to a great degree. This is most noticeable in the Celtic sets. Sometimes, as on “Give Us a Drink of Water/The Cock & the Hen/A Blast of Wind,” they display a softer side, with fiddle, flute and whistles sharing the lead duties. On other times they rough it up a bit with pipes and concertina, like in the polka set “The Britches Full of Stitches/Jer O’Connol’s/Din Tarrant’s.”
But in spite of doing a great job with the many Celtic tunes, it is when they move away from that territory that they really shine. They do a fine Swedish set of polskas (not to be confused with polkas) learnt from the now defunct Filarfolket. The first tune of the set is Ale Møller’s “Solpolska,” an intricate and beautiful tune performed on the oboe. They then move into “Magdalenapolska,” a faster, danceable tune with some lovely rhythm work. It is one of the best and most exciting tunes on the album.
The other example is an Eastern European set starting off with two short Romanian tunes, taken from Béla Bartók’s collection. The first is a slow air, the second a more rhythmic almost Arabic-sounding tune. But after little more than a minute they move into a Macedonian dance tune. The band starts almost hesitatingly, but they get more and more into the complex melody line and rhythms as the tune goes on. A lovely piece of work.
Then to the songs. “Come Up the Stairs” is sung by Cindy Matyi. It is a slow song where the backing concertina and guitar just lays out the chords, not providing any rhythmic works. At the end there is a short instrumental boat song, composed by Cindy Matyi herself. A rather pleasant tune, well suited to the feel of the song.
But vocally this is Katie Else’s show. She has a high pitched yet smooth, soothing and lovable voice, very well suited to songs like “As I Roved Out,” which she does a very good job with. The band backs her with a beautiful but simple arrangement with a piped intro.
The opening “The Female Smuggler” has a melody that sounds like a variation on “Dark Eyed Sailor” as recorded by Steeleye Span. The last song is another variation of “Seven Gypsies,” a song known in many guises. Silver Arm have taken the lyrics from Dolores Keane and give us a variety of the tune that is a little different from others I have heard.
In all this is a fine album, which I have really enjoyed over the last weeks. The members of Silver Arm know what they are doing and they seem well researched when it comes to their music. Next time though I would like to hear a few more songs from Katie Else and a few more adventurous instrumental sets, like the ones I have mentioned. Silver Arm are too good to play it safe. But these are only suggestions to make good a little bit better. For now I will settle for this offering.
(Celtic Designs and Music, 2001)