Sunday, 8 November 2015

DAMIEN O'KANE

CD Review

Areas of High Traffic

Fans of Damien O'Kane must be drooling by now as it's been five years since the talented honorary Yorkshire man produced a solo album. This is a very personal collection from O'Kane and it would seem one where he is trying to give traditional songs, which mean a great deal to him, a modern slant.

Damien O'Kane
Unfortunately, and perhaps a little unfairly - although it's pretty certain the unassuming musician wouldn't see it this way, the majority of people will know him from his on stage support of wife Kate Rusby who unsurprisingly appears on the album.
However, if you have listened to O'Kane playing for his spouse and even more so when she leaves the stage and allows "the boys" to get on with it, you immediately realise how good he is especially when it comes to the much maligned banjo.
But there is much more to the Colraine born artist, he is a fine singer, songwriter, guitarist and music arranger.
His singing style has that distinctive and traditional Gaelic quality, which is slightly nasal and has the drone quality of the uilleann pipes. You hear it in great folk musicians such as Kris Drever and Andy Irvine.
His album AHT draws heavily on his pre-Yorkshire life and while it's in many ways a nostalgic trip, he takes that journey with the eyes and ears of the 21st century rather than trying to recreate some long, distant memory.
The album is a mix of mostly traditional tunes given his own treatment and a couple of new ones which have come from his heart and he sings them in his native accent instead of some faux Americanised nonsense, so he gets big brownie points for that alone. The only real downside with his collection is that the fusing of traditional songs with more pop sounding music doesn't always work.
He eases the listener in with the traditional 'Til Next Market Day. Straight away you get a feel for the smoothness of Kane's voice and he has fused his traditional vocal skill with the modernised tune which should make it more palatable for folk purists. It also gives you a feel for the depth and character of his voice. O'Kane takes more of a risk with a really well-known staple of many folk repertoires, adding an urban and electronic soundtrack to The Blacksmith.
Kate Rusby
It's again O'Kane's voice which carries this song as the modern sound isn't entirely congruous with the lyrics.
Don't Let Me Come Home A Stranger is really where O'Kane gets it right. His voice is mournful with depth and emotion and the music fits the lyrics like a glove. You  get a real feel for how the words come from the soul. The Maid of Seventeen epitomises where the fusion doesn't work. Surprisingly O'Kane seems to be stepping into the stream of "popifying" folk songs. This is either a song which should have bent the lyrics to the mainstream-style music or made the music as traditional as the song but this funk-style beat underneath it doesn't work. If you were to listen to the musical interludes on their own there is nothing which would point you in the direction of them being folk songs.
On The Close of an Irish Day, O'Kane has mostly got that balance between keeping a traditional song about immigration and a more mainstream twist. As in all these songs it's O'Kane's distinctive voice and depth of character in his singing which carries the whole and fortunately the fusion of traditional and mainstream is less grating. O'Kane is very close to the story in the Banks of the Bann and his wife Kate provides the backing vocals. This is another of the tracks which works because the less traditional tune is not so intrusive into his traditional singing style. The musak-style intro of The Goddaughter is irritating. This is, as much of the album is, a personal song from O'Kane as the proud Godfather and thankfully it does break into his impressive banjo playing, however, this time the underlying tune is intrusive and if it wasn't for the fact O'Kane's expert playing rescues it, it would be a really bland offering.
O'Kane's new album
I Am A Youth, because it provides a platform for O'Kane's voice to be prominent, is among the better tracks on the album. The song is one drawn from his own youth and his singing does it justice.
The penultimate track Erin's Lovely Home is among the best on the album where again O'Kane has got that balance right between the modern tune and the traditional lyrics, although Cormac Byrne's percussion does seem to be a little intrusive on this one. In the same vein The Green Fields of America gets the balance more or less right but this is, again more to do with O'Kane's distinctive singing style, it's certainly easier on the ear than some of the tracks on the album.
AHT seems to be an indecisive album. If you are going to fuse mainstream with traditional then you have to work doubly hard so the joins are not visible, unfortunately there are too many tracks where O'Kane doesn't achieve this, which is a shame because he is a much better musician and singer and than this album suggests.

O'Kane's album is released on November 9 and you can see him live with his band at the first Birmingham Tradfest which runs from November 26 to 29.