Ye Vagabonds – The Hare’s Lament
River Lea – 22 March 2019
River Lea – the new record label run by music writer Tim Chipping under the wing of indie giants Rough Trade – is barely six months and three albums old, and already it feels like part of the folk music furniture. The label’s first release, Lisa O’Neill’s Heard A Long Gone Song (2018) was a breath of fresh air, a raw and uncompromising blend of original and traditional songs. The second – The Reeling, by Scottish smallpipe player Brìghde Chaimbeul – is one of the most astonishing, exploratory albums to emerge so far this year in any genre. Taken together, they represent a mighty impressive start for a label that appears to have arrived fully-formed and with a mission to reinvigorate traditional forms of musical expression.
With such an impressive start, the challenge for River Lea now is to keep the momentum going. It is understandable that expectations for their next album are going to be high, both amongst critics and the record-buying public. But Rough Trade know what they are doing (they have been around for forty years after all), and they have clearly put all their trust in their new imprint. And within the first few seconds of the first song on Ye Vagabonds’ new album, The Hare’s Lament, it is obvious that that trust has paid off. That opening track, Bacach Shíol Andaí, is a Gaelic song dealing with the return to Ireland of the revolutionary James Napper Tandy in 1798. The pulse of history is immediately apparent – and indeed runs through the whole album – and that is down to Ye Vagabonds’ attention to detail and strong grounding in the folkloric and historical traditions of their isle. This version of Bacach Shíol Andaí, for example, was taken directly from the 1953 recorded version by Róise na nAmhrán, whose family were from the island of Arranmore off the Donegal coast, the very place that Napper Tandy landed. As such, the song is uniquely place-specific, and the appeal of its beautiful, lilting melody is perhaps matched by its importance as a piece of social history.
Ye Vagabonds are a sibling duo – Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn – who hail from the town of Carlow, fifty miles south-west of Dublin. They are active members of the same fertile Dublin scene that includes label-mate Lisa O’Neill and the iconoclastic and award-winning Lankum. But while they are frequent collaborators, theirs is a brand of folk music that defies alignment with any wider musical movement. Their aesthetic is more rural than that of their peers, and their sound often has a subtler, more haunted quality. In their hands, even the most familiar of songs feels as if it has been freshly prised from the earth. Brían’s beautiful, minimal take on The Foggy Dew, for example, is a lesson in how restraint can conjure up feelings of pride, identity and melancholy. Or there is the frequently performed Seven Little Gypsies, full of sobbing fiddle and sad harmonies.
Dá mBeinn i mo Bhádóir is another Irish song from the repertoire of Róise na nAmhrán. It provides an object example of how the meanings of songs can change over the decades even if their words stay the same. In this case, what was once a song about romantic love becomes, in the brothers’ hands, a lament for the loss of a traditional way of life on the island of Arranmore. These small shifts in meaning and perspective occur throughout folk music (and are one of many reasons why it is still a valid – maybe even essential – artform) but rarely are they done with such simplicity and naturalness as they are by Ye Vagabonds.
Unusual perspectives are a favourite preoccupation on this album. The title track is a hunting song told from the point of view of the hare, and the duo once more showcase their fine harmony singing, before the music sparks off in another direction altogether, turning into a Macedonian dance tune called Ocogovska Oro, which features the tin whistle talents of John Flynn (who plays two tin whistles simultaneously, like Beefheart with his saxophones).
I Courted A Wee Girl – which Diarmuid learned from a version by County Armargh singer Sarah Makem – is a bittersweet song of lost love that carries a message about the prevalence of greed and materialism that is, if anything, more relevant today than when it was first performed. It is one of those songs that does not really carry a message or make any kind of moral judgement. It merely presents an honest (if somewhat jaundiced) view of humanity, and that in itself is valuable and refreshing.
The duo’s excellent harmony singing is heard at its purest in On Yonder Hill, which begins a cappella before the addition of a moody drone of harmonium – the subtlest of instrumentation which nevertheless has a profoundly transformative effect on the whole piece, imbuing it with a wild, ancient feel.
The third and final of the songs learned from the repertoire of Róise na nAmhrán is Tuirse mo Chroí, a brisk trot of a song further lightened by a guest appearance from the aforementioned Brìghde Chaimbeul on smallpipes, while the final Irish-language song is Siún Ní Dhuibhir, a Donegal song that the brothers learned from the singing of their grandfather (whom they never met – Brían only became aware of the recordings of his songs when on work experience as a teenager at the Irish Traditional Music Archive).
The Hare’s Lament rounds off with the a rendition of Willy O Winsbury. While it owes much to those great versions by Anne Briggs and Andy Irvine, Ye Vagabonds make it their own thanks to the addition of an introduction heavy with the rich textures of harmonium. Once again the pair’s harmonies are to the forefront, and add a further layer of quiet drama to an already exquisite and often ambiguous folk song.
It is fitting that the album should conclude with a song that was popularised by the likes of Andy Irvine because in certain respects Ye Vagabonds are true heirs to bands like Sweeney’s Men and Planxty. But they are much more than that besides: they possess an exhilarating contemporary edge, and their grasp of traditional material is sensitive without ever being conservative. Irish folk music is in a very healthy state at the moment and with The Hare’s Lament, Ye Vagabonds have emerged as its most accomplished exponents.