(5 / 5)
Blackbird & Crow are singer Maighread Ní Ghrásta and Stephen Doohan, who plays guitars, bouzouki, mandolin, stomp box and more, from County Donegal, Ireland.
Formed four years ago, discovered and supported by Clannad’s Moya Brennan.
This, their second album, is special. It is roots at its core that dips in and out of folk and blues. The material and the vocal performances are raw, honest, innate and gut wrenching.
Angst and therapy never sounded so good! Perhaps one of those albums you have to hear in full, and the tracks in the order as they appear….and maybe give it a few spins before you “get it”.
They dropped a single first in 2017 and then the debut album “’Shock Shatter Convince”’. In demand on the Irish festival scene, and an overseas trip in spring last year, touring Germany and The Netherlands with Big Country.
On “ailm”, Maighread pens the lyrics and pulls no punches as to the topics she delves into. From addiction, suicidal thoughts, abuse, social alienation, anxieties, stories about lost souls on the fringes of society and the darker side of Celtic mythology.
She calls upon personal experience for many of the words to her songs. Especially for the stand-out track “Parting Rag”, which Maighread wrote during “the lowest point of my alcohol addiction”.
Inspired by a period of insomnia where Maighread would lay awake amid hallucinations and suicidal thoughts, one night she was desperately searching her mind for the name of someone she could reach out to who had been where she was, and would understand her pain.
She came up with Shane McGowan of The Pogues, so she penned a song where in it, she was speaking to Shane and asking if she was in the right job as someone so tortured and in such pain.
Some time later, Maighread did get to meet Shane and “Parting Rag” also encapsulates that conversation.
Her songs also explore the darker themes of Ireland‘s legends, with songs such as ““Mór Ríoghain, (the Irish Goddess of witches, war and death). Stephen Doohan has crafted some beautiful guitar parts on this track.
The album’s title “ailm” is the Celtic symbol derived from the A of the Celtic Ogham alphabet. Ailm is assumed to mean “conifer/silver fir”. Conifers were associated with the healing of the soul in the tree lore.
The record offers 66 minutes of music spread across 13 tracks and then two bonus cuts, which are the radio edits of the singles “Blackbird” and “Sweet Surrender” – the full album versions are at tracks four and nine.
“Harlot On Holy Hill” opens proceedings with a short one minute and 19 second track, with some grunged-up slide guitar and Maighread’s percussive spoken word, in that rich Irish lilt, and she ends by dramatically announcing: “I am a Harlot”.
“The Witch That Could Not Be Burned”. More dirtied-up slide, and more of Maighread’s reverb-soaked spoken word, and then we get some fiery slide licks that heat things up. Later on, the track moves from narration to passionate vocals. The slide kicks in again and there’s percussion sat low in the track. Held my attention so far.
“Princess Of The Ditch” swaps acoustic slide guitar – that cuts through like a hot knife to butter – to ambient electric guitar brush strokes and a gentler Celtic folk vibe, with a gorgeous vocal. Very sweet. Still got my full attention.
All of this stuff is quite cinematic and ready-made for sync’ use on movie and TV drama soundtracks, conjuring up mental images of dark and moody scenes.
“Blackbird” sits on an Eastern drone sound and sitar-like instrument, with intermittent crashes of percussion to build intensity. Maighread’s distinctive vocal is yet another side of her.
“Margaret The Martyr”, is a softer Irish folk song in style, before “The Planter and the Runaway”, with lots of echo on the vocal.
The sax’ on “Sweet Surrender” doesn’t fit for me, in this sparse landscape of Celtic sounds. The less-is-more approach works well across the record, to place the focus on that aching voice and these haunting songs, so plopping a sax’ in there sounds too busy.
Nothing and no one that I can think of sounds like this album and Maighread’s voice. They describe their music as “Celtic folk blues with a punk attitude”.
Perhaps Hat Fitz and Cara and the defunct duo Babajack were in the ball park, and perhaps Maighread slightly channels Sinead O’Connor’s pained and brutally honest vocal delivery.
But this album “ailm”, and this duo are keeping it real and offering up something totally unique. It may be an acquired taste for some, and this is not the record to stick on to party!
But for me, it’s – I pause to find the right word and change to the Gaelic language: “Stiúdú” (Google it!)
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’