Thursday, December 13, 2007

Review: Sound Neighbors

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Released: October 23, 2007

When listening to a Smithsonian Folkways release, it's important to keep in mind that their mission is far different from a strictly commercial label. Their eyes aren't on Billboard, but on culture. There is always a clear educational goal on their albums that is incidental at best when it exists elsewhere. Still, they must straddle the often not insignificant gap between education and entertainment and they do it with far more success than could possibly be expected.

Considering the difficulty of their task, Sound Neighbors, Smithsonian Folkways' collection of contemporary music from Northern Ireland, is successful, but is also a bit of a mixed bag. It is a bit misleading that it claims to be "contemporary" music in Northern Ireland when in fact it is largely traditional music performed by contemporary artists. I had the expectation that it might tap into more than just the folk scene in Northern Ireland and give a broader picture than a single genre, even as integral as folk is for the Irish. Because of the narrow focus, it lacks the broad appeal that might make it more palatable to those of us who aren't passionate about Irish folk.

The collection's strength lies in it's ability to capture current groups making authentic traditional music. The recordings are warm and they take you to the pub or the fireside; they bring both the joy and the melancholy of the country; they are very much alive, much like the culture of Northern Ireland that has survived so much adversity. While some tracks are more accessible than others, there are no miscues and each contributes to the album's snapshot of a increasingly hopeful though still sometimes somber people. Tommy Sands' "There Were Roses" is a standout. In a song about sectarian violence that cost two families a loved one each, Sands recognizes the common human experience of beauty. It comes as no surprise that Sands has worked with Pete Seeger, because his protest is a very human one which sees that people have been divided against each other, against love and against even their own best interests. It is this recognition that brings hope and it is this hope that makes this music, which is a vital part of American music history as well, even more important today.

With Northern Ireland in a position to puts its violent past behind it, this compilation shows why we feel such a close connection to this peace versus other potential accords throughout the world. The Irish musical tradition is ultimately our own, whether we are Irish or not, and at least subconsciously we all have an affinity for these people and a particular interest in an end to their plight. While you may not care for Irish folk music in its purest form, Sound Neighbors provides a good education about the musical roots of something you do like, no matter what that something is.

Rating: 8/10

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