I Could Read the Sky
What would it feel like to be a middle-aged Irish migrant laborer in London in the 1950s, looking back on a life lived slaving at construction sites, far from the family and land that you love? One not so pretty answer is provided in the film I Could Read the Sky, based on a novel by Timothy O’Grady, and this bleak but incredibly moving album made for and inspired by it. With a rich mix of musical styles, from traditional instrumentals to heavily programmed and sampled evocations of the depressing industrial grayscapes of England, this album perfectly expresses the desolation of Irish emigrants who left home in search of a better life only to find they had left everything they cared about behind.
As one of the most talented Irish emigre musicians working in London today, Iarla O’Lionaird (lead singer for the Afro-Celt Sound System) was the perfect person to compose the soundtrack to Sky. O’Lionaird’s sean nos (“old style”) singing is legendary, and he uses it to brilliant effect here, especially on the harrowing traditional song “I’m Stretched on Your Grave,” which he sings in Gaelic to the ghostly accompaniment of a 1920 Gibson mandolin, cello, bodhran drum (courtesy of fellow Afro-Celt James McNally), keyboards, and programming.
Another Irish emigre musician, the fiddler Martin Hayes, appears on several tracks (he also played a key role in the making of the book Sky). Together with Dennis Cahill’s lovely, fragile mandolin accompaniment, Hayes delivers a powerful bittersweet performance on “Mother,” a tune which encapsulates the melancholy memories of a home lost forever that have haunted generations of Irish emigrants. Other noteworthy tracks include the churning rage of “Knuckles to the Marrow,” featuring the vocals of Irish rapper Ri-Ra set to the sounds of buzzsaws, hammering, and a hacking cough; and a gorgeous reworking of the 18th-century Irish rebellion-hymn “Roisin Dubh” sung by Sinead O’Connor.
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