Heard A Long Gone Song (RiverLea Records)
This is not a pretty album. Nor is it lush or gentle. Indeed nothing about it could be described as soft: not its singing, its sound, its sentiment or its timing. But by god it’s effective.
County Cavan singer and songwriter Lisa O’Neill has a voice which cuts through like a bracing wind off the North Sea but takes up residence like one of those stern-faced country folk whose turn of phrase is as warm as their close handshake and hug. It is prematurely aged, or maybe that should be not defined by its age.
There is a jagged edge and a keening point, paired with a roughened earthiness, which takes you out of the 20th, let alone 21st, century, to evenings of low light and nursed whiskeys, bodies pressed against each other but no words spoken, and tears welling up in the eyes over hurts personal as much as historical, emotional as much as physical.
If that isn’t clear enough, it is not a voice for everyone.
But it is made for these songs, a mix of traditional and a handful of originals (that rank among the album’s best), which cover matters as regular as leaving families behind to find work overseas, mechanisation’s double-edged sword and the tribulations of daily existence in a harsh environment, and as unique as Violet Gibson, the Irish woman of well-to-do birth who – maybe mad, maybe prescient - tried to assassinate Mussolini in 1926.
Performed with backing that is as spare as O’Neill’s mannerisms, this is an album for a new austerity. It is unsparing, certainly once past the opening track The Galway Shawl, which is as close to good feeling as you’ll get here even though it is about a brief moment of love’s clarity. Though you could argue Factory Girl, which positions the pride and strength of a young woman resisting the demands of a wealthier man, centre stage, is a timely and positive revival in the age of #metoo. And sounds stirring too as its dual voices elevate.
In the original Rock The Machine, riding on a drone’s hum to the pluck of a banjo, unemployment on the modern docks cleans out hope much as the rise of machinery 100 or 150 years earlier scythed through battered working lives. The even starker A Year Shy Of Three is a series of just-softened hammer blows that accumulate in the wheeze of its barely-there accompaniment, until the song, and the listener, are wrung out.
While O’Neill’s Violet Gibson may have an element of the fantastical about it – you’d be thinking, come on, did this near-50-year-old woman really shoot Mussolini in the nose? – its truth is not just in the historical record but in the feel of its storytelling. Perversely perhaps, this also holds true for the not at all historically-rooted The Lass Of Aughri which convinces with its inner rather than its external truth.
That song, like so much of A Long Gone Song, has spirit, flesh and bone, and the ability to transfix - which given how little embellishment the album offers, is a stark testimony to O’Neill’s voice. And her artistry.