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In the opening measures of “Carolina Rua”, a flute trills while Imelda May croons “Do you love me?” like someone singing in the shower. Seconds after that, she makes way for an Irish jig and right then fans know The Chieftains are back. To celebrate their 50th anniversary, The Chieftains invite modern musicians to record on their new album, Voice of Ages. The album acts as a party to rejoice over what the past has offered and what the future will promise. Joined by The Decemberists, Bon Iver, The Low Anthem, The Civil Wars, Punch Brothers, Paolo Nutini, and numerous others, The Chieftains allow their music to shift in style as guests twist up their style of basic Irish music.
The six-time Grammy-winning ensemble have created an album that can introduce any listener to traditional Irish music in an easy to understand way. Voice of Ages doesn’t get carried away with its guest performers, but rather uses them to place traditional Irish music under different lights. Each member is back and ready to perform, Paddy Moloney on pipe, Matt Molloy on flute, Kevin Conneff keeping the rhythm steady on bodhrán, Deanie Richardson and Jon Pilatzke on fiddles, Triona Marshall on harp, and Jeff White on guitar.
The Chieftains weren’t afraid of where the path may lead when it came to this record. Tracks like “Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies” with Pistol Annies dip into country while the Carolina Chocolate Drops make “Pretty Little Girl” a bluegrass tune. Lisa Hannigan even subtly transforms “My Lagan Love” into an ambient track. It doesn’t matter how much of their style artists laced in these songs – the base of each track still clings to the traditional Irish style they’re known for making famous.
One of the easiest tracks to notice this on is “Down in the Willow Garden”. Grammy-nominated Bon Iver gently strums his guitar the same way he does on For Emma, Forever Ago, his voice scraping both high and low notes, and it sounds like a track from his debut album. That is, until The Chieftains chime in. Their flutes, pipes, and fiddles match Justin Vernon’s hopeless vocals as both long for comfort during sad times.
Another acoustic guitar song that sounds more modern than other Chieftains songs is “Lily Love”, featuring The Civil Wars. Even though their style nearly dominates the song, The Civil Wars still manage to sound like guests on the track. This is one of the most notable things about Voice of Ages. The Chieftains manage to let artist after artist sing in the spotlight, but their traditional Irish sound still pulses at the heart of each track.
It’s their collaboration with The Decemberists in “When The Ship Comes In” that will keep you coming back for more. The whole track sounds fun and amusing, the indie folk rock band performing like they’ve known The Chieftains since they were kids. The fiddle works away as the flute giddily whittles away alongside Colin Meloy’s voice, which has the perfect tone for an upbeat Irish track.
The Low Anthem help make traditional Irish song “School Days Over” lullaby-like as it tosses out life lessons. Some of these new voices act as a sugar coating like The Secret Sisters in “Peggy Gordon” and Paolo Nutini in “Hard Times Come Again No More”.
If all these new musicians have you nervous the true sound of Irish music has been lost, then put on “The Chieftains Reunion” – an eleven minute song stocked with finger drumming, winding melodies, fast plucking, and foot-stomping, harp strumming, and infamous fiddle playing. By the time the Voice of Ages finishes, the listener is left stunned; an hour has passed but it barely feels like half that. Then again, that’s how it must feel for The Chieftains. Fifty years of making traditional Irish music flies by, and they still make it as infectious and enjoyable as before.