When I first heard Karan Casey sing with the Irish traditional group Solas in 1995, not long after they’d gotten together, she took my breath away. It doesn’t matter what you’re thinking about or where you’re hearing her sing, Karan’s voice whips your head right around and commands your full attention for as long as she’s on the stage. Sometimes sweet and vulnerable, sometimes in your face bold and brassy, Karan’s singing is always exquisitely sensitive to the song and achingly lovely to your ear and heart.
Karan left Solas a few years back to concentrate on her solo career. Distant Shore is her third solo album (not counting a lovely children’s album she released in 2000 called Seal Maiden), and marks a bit of a departure for her, since all but two of the songs are contemporary rather than traditional (compare that to her last album, The Winds Begin to Sing, on which seven of the eleven songs were traditional). I have to say, I do miss the traditional songs; it’s not for nothing that Karan is known as one of the finest Irish traditional singers of her generation. But her voice is in fine form on all the songs here, the accompaniments are tasteful and adventurous, and the album is well worth having.
One of the things that hasn’t changed on this album is Karan’s strong feeling for the hard-working ordinary folks who far too often get short shrift from the bosses and the governments. Two of the songs on Distant Shore deal with the immigrant’s experience of discrimination: the title track by Billy Bragg and “Bara is Bóthar” (“The Stick and the Road”) by John Spillane and Louis de Paor. Karan says those songs are on the album to give her a chance to talk about the subject with her audiences, since prejudice against immigrants is a big problem in Ireland today–only this time it’s the Irish who are doing the unfair kicking around of the new arrivals.
Another thing that’s stayed the same is Karan’s love for folk singer and songwriter Ewan MacColl, which I heartily endorse. My favorite song on Distant Shore is her version of his “The Ballad of Tim Evans,” about a man who was hung for a crime he didn’t commit. Karan’s voice burns with righteous rage, and the accompanying concertina and mandolin really tear the roof off the track (delivered by her partner Niall Vallely and American bluegrass musician Tim O’Brien, respectively). There’s a simple but very sweet composition from Karan herself, “Quiet of the Night,” with her voice just incredibly gentle and gorgeous on the chorus: “I love you in my heart / because you let me be.” Niall returns the sentiment with a very sweet and mellow concertina solo later in the track. Elsewhere on the album you’ll find some lovely banjo work from Dirk Powell (of the Cajun group Balfa Toujours), fiddle from Dezi Donnelly, and flute, whistle, and bodhran from Michael McGoldrick.