Saints and Scoundrels - Sharon Shannon
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Sharon Shannon
Saints and Scoundrels

One of the most popular performers in traditional Irish music, accordionist Sharon Shannon continues to gently stretch and pull at her defining genre like a cozy old favorite sweater. Her latest, Saints and Scoundrels, is a bit of a concept album, but it’s a now-familiar formula for Shannon: a collection of tunes that have a distinctive Irish flavor, but pull from various places. While she is best known for her energetic tunes, some of the best here are slower ones with a deeper emotional resonance.

Having reached the upper echelons of her home genre, Shannon seems to be looking back a bit at old friends and old times, but that theme is sometimes uncomfortably subjugated into a campy conceit immediately apparent from the sepia-toned, costumed pose the musicians take for the cover photo. It’s as if Shannon and company wanted to have some fun, bounced some ideas around and went one-drink too far a couple of nights.

The soft-spoken Shannon is obviously tickled to be playing with scamps like Shane MacGowan of Irish punkers The Pogues, and up-and-coming Irish rockabilly diva Imelda May. The joke is even apparent in the name of her back-up band - The Cartoon Thieves - but it seems to be an ill fit at times.

“Saints and Angels,” almost the title cut, turns out to be one of the best songs on the album. On it, Shannon reunites with The Waterboys, with whom she first came to widespread notice a couple of decades ago. Sung by Mike Scott, the words are a wish-you-well, with an effective juxtaposition of the slow melody riding atop brisk, soft rhythms played on drums with brushes. Scott sings, “I have a wish for you/ many hearts to keep you warm/many guides to speed you through the storm.” It’s a lovely song, a perfect tune from a country with a history of immigration and sad farewells. It shows what Shannon can produce when she is given top-flight material and then aligns with the song’s emotional core.

In an unfortunate juxtaposition, the album next moves to “The Whitewash Station Blues,” a jokey song that seems appropriate to the ragtag crew on the cover, but it’s not very compelling.

The opening song, “Mama Lou,” penned by Shane MacGowan, has a chorus where the singer calls a gold-digging woman “you mattress you,” but confesses his love for her, the kind of crazy hate-love relationship that is a pale reminder of MacGowan at his best, such as “Christmas Lullaby.” MacGowan himself sings on the closing cut, “Rake at the Gates of Hell,” sounding literally – though not figuratively - toothless.

“Go Tell the Devil,” is a good showcase for May’s clear rock ‘n’ roll alto; and the players bang around nicely. Though the song is about a heat-seeking diva (“a lily white beginner is one thing I ain’t”) there is no real sense of menace.

The funereal “Let’s Drink for Once Dead,” with the sepulchral, Leonard Cohen-like rasp of Jerry Fish is an unusual choice for the usually peppy Shannon, but it works well as does the sad country ballad “Shifting Summer Sands,” with singer Carol Keogh.

“Hillybilly Lilly and Buffalo Benjo” is one of the few instrument sets, and Shannon and company make it breezy fun. Always a generous bandleader, Shannon and her friends demonstrate the easy virtuosity of a seisiun-style ensemble. At times, Shannon – a great accordion player – is happy to fade into the background and let her bandmates shine.

Shannon – no matter whom she is playing with – is at her best when she connects with the emotional core of the music – whether that is the joy of a set of jigs or a poignant ballad. On this, she hits the marks several times for some great moments, but the caricature goofing finds Shannon and the Cartoon Thieves slipping on the proverbial banana peel on occasion. - Marty Lipp

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