The album begins with the charming sparkle of an exhilarating set of reels — the frenetic fiddle of Winifred Horan and the rippling accordion of Mick McAuley rush forth over Eamon McElholm’s strong, rhythmic guitar riffs and the reverberant patter of Seamus Egan’s bodhrán. The sound builds to a tempestuous crescendo with the addition of Egan’s whistle and banjo — how many pairs of hands does this guy have? This invigorating four minutes of “Eoin Bear’s Reel / Tune for Sharon / The Rossa Reel” will leave you on the edge of your seat with anticipation of the roller-coaster ride that is to follow. And that was the problem for me — the roller coaster has a tendency to come off the tracks on a number of occasions after this opening number.
The second track, “Seven Curses,” introduces Solas’ new singer, Mairéad Phelan. Certainly, Phelan possesses a voice of beguiling beauty, but she sings with a tenderness that often struggles to be heard over the instrumental engine-room of Solas, particularly on this up-tempo number that is all but ruined by overbearing percussion. “Mollaí na gCuach Ní Chuilleanáin” goes some way to addressing my concerns by providing Phelan with a stirring, ethereal backdrop over which she gently layers her gorgeously fragile vocals. Then, as if to prove me completely wrong, Phelan plays her ace on the pop-drenched “Merry Go Round,” a duet with The Duhks. Phelan really hits her stride here with a spirited, almost feisty vocal that is every bit as catchy and charismatic as the set of reels that opened the album. As a stand-alone number it really is wonderful, but it somehow feels like its been shoe-horned into this album, and indeed this could be the prime example of what it is that Solas may have misjudged with For Love And Laughter — consistency. It doesn’t really hang together well as an album. The sum of its parts is somehow less than the contribution of each individual track.
One further misjudgment is the inclusion of “There Is A Time,” that sees the return of the overbearing percussion and a confused arrangement that is insipid throughout, harking back to the very worst of overblown 1980s pop productions. The shame is that, had this been given a more understated, pared back arrangement, and had lead vocals been handed to Phelan, it might well have shone like a precious jewel.
For Love And Laughter isn’t a bad album, but it lacks that special something and fails to capitalise on its potential. There are faultless examples of instrumental virtuosity on slow waltzes and fiery jigs, where instruments weave effortlessly together; there is the fine voice of Mairéad Phelan; but there also are aspects that just don’t pass the grade, and you don’t really expect that sort of error of judgment from an established band like Solas. And ultimately it is those high expectations that have led me to be somewhat disappointed.