Tears Of Stone

The Chieftains

RCA Victor Records, 1999




It's more likely that you've heard of Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Sinead O'Connor and Joan Osborne than the Chieftains, an Irish band prominent in the World Music scene. All of the above vocalists plus many others are featured in their new album Tears Of Stone.

Their aim was to create "a new voice" through synthesis, with the basis being traditional Irish music. While nothing as revolutionary happens, Tears Of Stone is still an extremely good album in terms of vocal concepts and arrangement. And it is amazingly cohesive.

The first track, "Never Give All the Heart" is a vocal/spoken word arrangement of a poem by W. B. Yeats. Its hardened message and the ethereal beauty of its stark harmonies is an attractive contradiction, and frequently associated with ballads from that region (remember the sad-beautiful vocals in the orchestral "Titanic" theme?). This is repeated in "Factory Girl" featuring the recently ordained Sinead O'Connor, and it's a spine-chiller.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

But the biggest feat is with the interaction between the Chieftans and the non-Irish vocalists. Blues singer Diana Krall cuts a clear blues track in "Danny Boy" but the backing gospel choir sings the Irish harmonies as easily as they would an American spiritual. And Joni Mitchell is distinctly herself in "The Magdelene Laundries" with her irony and organic vocal arrangements, but with the Chieftans in the background adding a rich, cultural dimention to her usual folk intimacy. "A Stor Mo Chroi" featuring Bonnie Raitt blends American-midwest guitar with a traditional song in a sparse and effective track, giving insight as to how far you can stretch the Irish Thing.

But its amazing resilience is best shown in "Sake In A Jar" featuring traditional Japanese vocalist Akiko Yano. This track is sung in Japanese, is built over a Japanese rythm structure and Yano's style is clearly not Irish. But something about its instrumental arrangement and chord structure makes it seamlessly connect with the rest of the album on a subtle level. It's unexpected but it fits.

Not to say it always does. For a song that's under four minutes, "The Lowlands Of Holland" featuring Natalie Merchant drags on its wordy storytelling and Merchant's uniform delivery. "Raglan Road" featuring Joan Osborne is sung with respect but without real empathy. Eileen Ivers, a fiddler who has recently released an unimpressive solo album, is among the ladies in "The Fiddling Ladies" which is a kind of track not too difficult to pull off in any given meeting of the clans in Ireland. "Jimmy Mo Mhile Stor" by the Rankins and "I Know My Love" featuring The Corrs are light fun, but not everyone will enjoy the catchiness.

But any project of this ambition has the license to make some errors in judgement and in the case of Tears Of Stone they're largely forgivable. Much of World Music involves using the past to create the future and the Chieftans are undeniably a force of innovation in this respect. Tears Of Stone, and whatever the Chieftans may do in the future, is worth paying attention to.

Rating: B+

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© 1999 JB and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of RCA Victor Records, and is used for informational purposes only.