Ensemble Ériu

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Ensemble Ériu
Raelach Records (www.raelachrecords.com)

Like the image gracing the cover of this self-titled debut, Ensemble Ériu describes shapes carved into the earth over eons. And yet, there is undeniable freshness to its erosions. Such dynamic balance is embodied in cofounders Jack Talty and Neil O'Loghlen, who together arrange all of the material here and bake its stylistic mélange to a crisp. Where Talty's concertina epitomizes the sounds of old, O'Loghlen's bass thrives on jazz, though his traditional heart beats audibly when he picks up a flute or whistle.

New interpretations of standard fare may often be said to stand out from the rest. Not so with Ensemble Ériu. Theirs stand in the rest, showing breadth of deference and influence in every song. Titles like "Jurna" and "3 College Square" are thin disguises for staple Irish dance reels. Paddy Kelly's "New Custom House" reel and the "College Groves" reel, respectively, find themselves magnified. Behind the familiar lilt of concertina and fiddles (courtesy of Jeremy Spencer and Úna McGinty), one encounters the clarinet of Matthew Berrill and, intriguingly, the marimba of Matthew Jacobsen. The latter masterstroke adds a minimal, looping feel that recalls the percussion works of Steve Reich. It's a gorgeous addition to an already unified band sound, one that enhances the repetitiveness of the jig to the level of cool ecstasy. Motifs emerge by way of smartly realized progressions, adding one instrument at a time until something special emerges.

Despite production choices that could be called ambient, this isn't an ethereal album. It keeps its feet on the ground and prefers to locate beauty in all that the ear can hear. And so, while a wash of chords from guitar and marimba adds expansive context to O'Loghlen's tin whistle in "Gleann Na Réimsí," the concertina's light - dappled by shadows from clarinet and strings - shifts focus from above to below. Even the modern "April's Fool" by Jimmy Keane never loses sight of its roots, its sharper melodic leads becoming rounded by piano as the piece goes on. These meticulous constructions evolve in almost geologic time. They are less about grooves and more about moves, and the musicians follow changes without force.

The album's remaining two tracks offer a triptych of tunes and a mournful epilogue. Bass and bellows ease into the darker corridors of "Caoineadh Do Leanbh Marbh" and the fish-scale overlapping of "Tírdhreach Garbh" (penned by O'Loghlen) before "Bobby Casey's Jig" raises a glass with hope in its eye. Even the electro-acoustic drone of "Seachrán Sí," beautifully sung by Saileog Ni Cheannabháin in an old, ornamented style, stays well within the bounds of realism. Like the foam that spews last from the tap, it settles in its quiet way as the crown to a perfect musical pint.

This may be an album for those who think they don't (or won't) like Irish music. Aficionados may find themselves both challenged and delighted by the resonance achieved through Ériu's well-rounded approach. The musicians are young still, but their expressiveness is colored by patience beyond their years. That, in and of itself, is something to cherish. - Tyran Grillo

Visit the band online: www.ensembleeriu.com

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