By Leanna Bornkamp
Happy 50th Anniversary to The Chieftains! With this shockingly impressive milestone in their career, the boisterously classic Irish folk group has taken their decades of experience and used them for something entirely different: indie-rock. Still, the shamelessly Gaelic style is pervasive throughout the album – but could we honestly have it any other way?
On Voice of Ages, a 15-track album released in February, the quintessential Irish folk band took its talents and dared other talented musicians to put their own influence into each track.
On paper, Voice of Ages reads like the latest installments in Tony Bennett’s repertoire: a mashing of countless guest artists. But this album was more than just a conglomeration of the many admirers that The Chieftains have collected over the years; each individual track is powerfully influenced by the outsiders– so much so that it often seems like The Chieftains are the outside artists being featured.
Take tracks like “My Lagan Love,” performed by Lisa Hannigan. Although the song is a traditional Irish ballad, the depth and intuition of Hannigan’s voice seems to make the world stop turning. The quiet, yet wide aural expanse forces the listener to gasp as the singer does, awaiting what else she is going to tell us. The instrumentation envelops the listener with hopeful warmth, demanding our utmost attention – with nothing but our own breath punctuating the quiet drone.
The album is punctuated by the high energy brought by the Decemberists, in “When The Ship Comes In.” Montana boy Colin Meloy tries to sound British in his past work, and tries to sound Irish now – but it’s ok, we totally love it. The formula itself isn’t much different than the work of The Decemberists, but the subtle changes definitely work for them – hopefully they incorporate them in future projects.
The lines between the Americana/Celtic influences on Voice of Ages begin to blur in tracks by artists like the Punch Brothers. They dare you to say Americana with their two installments on the album, teetering between the classic sound of slow American folk music and the subtly different influence brought by its Celtic origins. The Low Anthem also combines these styles, in “School Days Over.” The child chorus is mesmerizing, and the slightly accented vocals on the track don’t let us forget the intended imagery. Still, the bassline is inherently Americana in its boring 1-5-1-5 bass progression. There has to be something new to replace that!
Sadly, this wasn’t the only example of a bluegrass-y gaffe on Voice of Ages: “Pretty Little Girl,” courtesy of Carolina Chocolate Drops, seems more like a trial than a song – it feels like the kind of thing The Chieftains want to see if you can get through before you are allowed to listen to the rest of the album. Still, the Americana had its good moments; “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” by Pistol Annies (the group that Miranda Lambert came from) has all the vocal prowess of a group of powerful country singers, while still maintaining enough Irish individuality that Annies fans would know something was up with the stylistic choices.
One of the most impressive collaborations on Voice of Ages is “Down in the Willow Garden,” with Bon Iver. It has a powerfully sweet sadness, and is a gentle lullaby that the individual artists would likely never have been able to complete themselves – but, with the directness of the lyrics paired with the whimsical vocals, the simple progression and the subtle instrumental additives, the end product is clearly greater than the sum of its parts.
The album’s composition is much more indicative of the advancement as a whole than as individual songs. Each track is clearly influenced by the past works of the Chieftains, and the many musicians that have had the honor of playing with them – but the format of the songs is much more rock-based. In the past, most of the tracks on any given album by the group would be instrumental – but now, in Voice of Ages, the verse-chorus-verse style of composition that is indicative of folk, rock and other genres is omnipresent. The change is a welcome one; it’s the kind of development we can’t help but gobble up. Congrats on 50 years, Chieftains – here’s to many more!