The Blue Idol

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Altan continue to go from strength to strength. While it seemed for a little while that the 1994 death of founder Frankie Kennedy would tear the band apart, they've ended up a strong, cohesive unit instead, one which continues to push at the boundaries of Irish music, albeit in small ways. But when you're this good -- and they deserve the tag as the best Irish band today, and certainly the most accomplished -- you don't need to make giant strides. They set out their stall with an assured version of "Daily Growing" (better known as "The Trees They Do Grow High") where Maighread Ní Mhaonaigh's duet with Paul Brady recasts the song -- it retains its folk roots, but becomes a living dialogue. "The Pretty Young Girl" brings Dolly Parton into the mix. She might seem an unlikely addition, but she acquits herself very well -- and some of the roots of mountain music are in Ireland, after all. As usual, the band bounces between instrumentals and songs, with equal care given to both, and the fact that this album was largely recorded live in the studio gives it a presence that Altan hasn't managed before, with some real life in Ní Mhaonaigh's dark "Slainte Theilinn" (her fiddle playing is often overlooked because of her glorious voice; with luck, this record should put paid to that) and the jazzy take on "Comb Your Hair and Curl It" that explodes into the reel "Gweebarra Bridge" to close the record. It's fair to say that Altan has never made a bad record, but it's right to say this might well be their best to date, playing to their strengths, shoring up whatever few weaknesses they might have, and letting the music do the talking.

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