The Abbey Reel (track 1)
Claddagh CC63CD; 48 minutes; 1998
- Reels: Abbey Reel, The West Clare Reel
- Song: Staimpi
- Air: Farewell to Nigg
- Reels: The Dunmore Lasses – The Dublin Reel
- Song: Coleraine Town
- Jigs: Brendan Tonra’s Jig, The Banks of Lough Gowna
- Air: Black Black Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair
- Song: Willie Taylor
- March & Jigs: The Return from Fingal, Cathal McConnell’s Slip, Tom Busby’s Jig
- Song: Seacht Suailci na Maighdine Muire
- Jigs: The Humours of Ballyloughlin, Liz Kelly’s Delight, The Kerry Jig, Fraher’s Jig
For anyone fed on a diet of Irish traditional albums, Black Black Black proved a shock in more ways than one. Instead of a typical cover, say a musician with instrument or a photograph of some dreamy Connemara landscape, here were three men of a certain age, dressed in black, and staring with an insouciant intimacy at the camera lens. Then there was the stark gravity of the title, suggesting a triplication of the depths of despair, and lastly the band’s arcane name itself, taken from a term used to describe a form of stylistic ornamentation employed by uilleann pipers.
If such was not enough, the sombre theme continued inside the liner where the track listings were presented in white type on a black background, supplemented by even more austere monochrome photographs of the trio. There was to be one final shock in store, for the album’s co-producer, alongside the band, was not one of Ireland’s alumni such as Dónal Lunny or P.J.Curtis, but the American Shel Talmy – yep, that Shel Talmy of Swinging Sixties renown, producer of such hits as The Who’s My Generation, The Kinks’ You Really Got Me and The Easybeats’ Friday on My Mind. “It was enough,” as P.J. told me, “to believe that I’d never work in Ireland again.” Fortunately, this proved not to be the case.
Thoroughly intrigued by now, it was time for a spot of research. Cran’s first album, The Crooked Stair, had appeared way back in 1993, released by Cross Border Media, an obscure Meath-based label which sank without trace, though plenty of legal shenanigans, just after the turn of the century. The original trio comprised the Drogheda-born singer, bouzouki-player and renowned song collector Seán Corcoran, alongside two multi-skilled Belfast musicians, the flute-player and singer Desi Wilkinson and the uilleann piper and cellist Neil Martin. By the time of Black Black Black, Ronan Browne (from a well-known Dublin musical family) had stepped in for Martin, providing uilleann pipes and whistles.
A sketch of Cran’s history, however, can never adequately elucidate why Black Black Black is such an engrossing album. It takes a touch of “draíocht” (“magic”), as fiddler Martin Hayes might say, to explain that.
Earlier Irish traditional group albums regarded as classics, say The Bothy Band’s 1975, Planxty’s self-titled debut or Altan’s Island Angel, had relied on individual virtuosity, dynamic interplay and consummate singing to justify their reputations. Black Black Black has all of these and something more. In part there’s an overall resonance to the album, part Talmy’s studio technique, but also engendered by the presence of Ronan’s pipes and his subtle use of their drones. This is fortified by the occasional employment of strings, the presence of Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill’s clavinet and harmonium, Kevin Glackin’s fiddle and the choir Anúna, and, perhaps above all, the characteristic vocal harmonies focal to Cran’s work.
The tune and song choices are exemplary too, but it’s their arrangement that is ultimately the stunning element in Cran’s confection. The simply structured song, Coleraine Town, acquires additional strengths through differing descending motifs constructed first by strings, then by the twin flutes of Wilkinson and Browne. Another song, Willie Taylor, sung unaccompanied offers exquisite variation in each chorus, while, Seacht Suáilcí na Maighdine Muíre, has a constant harmonium drone as a backing for Seán’s vocal tour de force.
Just as The Bothy Band’s 1975 kicked off with the exhilarating Kesh Jig, so Black Black Black’s opening track is a classic, the addition of Kevin Glackin’s fiddle adding a compelling factor to the simple bliss of the Abbey Reel. Indeed, Kevin also returns for the closing track which commences with a bracing rendition of The Humours of Ballyloughlin, one of the most stuttery tunes in the Irish canon, where first flute and fiddle, then pipes, bouzouki and clavinet, bounce around vivaciously before Ronan heads off into Liz Kelly’s Delight.
And the title itself? Well it’s a repetition of the opening word of Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair, thought to have been delivered in triplicate by one Nina Simone, and delivered here as an air by the full faculties of Browne and Wilkinson. It’s a dramatic centrepiece to an utterly dazzling album.
This article by Geoff Wallis originally appeared as a ‘Classic Album’ review in Songlines magazine – www.songlines.co.uk/