Over a ten-year period up to 2010, those doyens of the international circuit (and of course the Return To Camden festival) The London Lasses have given us four scintillating albums of traditional Irish music, all in collaboration with pianist Pete Quinn. Things have moved on a bit over the past five years, and the Lasses’ latest album release sees them joined instead by Leeds pianist/guitarist Chris O’Malley. What hasn’t changed, though, is the essential character of their music-making, which remains as exciting and full of companionable joie-de-vivre as ever.
The collective band sound is commendably full-toned and detailed, with both ensemble richness and responsive interplay between the instrumental colours being strong features of their music. The lineup sports a slightly unusual complement, with the Lasses between them playing fiddles (Karen Ryan and Elaine Conwell), flute/whistle (Elma McElligott), concertina (Brogan McAuliffe) and harp (Brona McVittie), with Karen and Elma doubling on mandola/banjo and saxophone respectively. It’s an invigorating blend, to be sure, and their already superbly infectious and spirited musicianship scores even higher on the excitement scale when augmented at various points by guest musicians (accordionists Maureen Linane Hankins and Aileen Geoghegan, and harpist Colm McGonigle) they really do raise the roof (and lower the floor!).
The multifarious tune-sets are interspersed with just four songs, on which the lead vocal duties are more than competently handled by Brona (with Elma on backup); Slieve Gallion Braes is refreshingly done to a brisk jig rhythm, the lament Caoineadh na dTri Mhuire is delicately voiced and the Burns lyric to Dainty Davie is charmingly handled (although this latter song maybe doesn’t quite fit in with the band’s core Irish repertoire). Pleasingly though the songs are managed, though, they remain as but interludes in the scheme of things, simply because so much of the disc’s tune repertoire is enterprisingly unusual and relatively little known. Particularly enjoyable are the fun slide, hop jig and polka set (track 5), the slip-jig set at track 2, the track 12 set with its joyous twin-fiddle excursion on the central jig (Courtown Harbour), and the finely pointed closing set of reels. And there’s plenty of variety in texture and instrumentation within the enviably fulsome ensemble sound of the Lasses, with departures into diverse territories like the sax-driven Percy French barndance-and-jig set and the Victory reel (both recalling the cheeky adventures of At The Racket). There are a couple of occasions when Chris’s full-bodied piano underpinning comes across a touch unrelieved and almost threatens to dominate proceedings, but the sheer force of combined musical intervention and careful blending from the Lasses themselves invariably wins out. And when Chris turns to the guitar, the group chemistry proves just as persuasive.
All of which goes to show that this isn’t just another album of Irish tunes, but so much more – a joyful celebration of a group of musicians thoroughly at home with their talent and eager to give their listeners an equally good time.