Shake the Blossom Early
Own label, HRCH 2323; 51 minutes; 2004
No matter how much music changes, some constants remain and one resilient principle is that singers of love songs must possess a voice rich enough to convey the emotions of the songs they sing. Imagine, for instance, Ronnie Drew singing When a Manís in Love (not that Ronnie would probably ever dare!) and youíll get the picture. Helen Roche has a voice of such gorgeous range and timbre that love songs fall naturally within its ambit and, to ramify that point, Shake the Blossom Early is an entire collection of such songs drawn from the Irish tradition in which the listenerís interests never dwindle. Indeed, such is the emotional power of Helenís singing and such is the sheer quality of her approach to that tradition, embodied by the subtlety of many of the musical arrangements here, that listening to Shake the Blossom Early becomes a thoroughly absorbing and utterly gratifying experience.†
The songs chosen by Helen have been largely drawn from the north of Ireland and, clearly, she has spent much time listening to Paddy Tunney, Sarah Makem, Geordie Hanna, Robert Cinnamond and the McPeakes, while her father, Jules, and late grandfather, Bill, are other noteworthy sources. However, while paying tribute to such sources, Helen completely retains her own identity. Comparisons might be drawn with Anne Briggs, though perhaps that singerís innate earthiness is inimitable, or with Cara Dillon, though Helen reveals none of the twee elements which sometimes infiltrate Caraís recordings.
The albumís title derives from The DraighneŠn Donn, learnt from the singing of the Keane sisters, and illustrative of the exquisite care applied to the musical arrangements on Helenís debut. Here itís the harp of Harriet Earis and Colman Connollyís low whistle which provide the apposite backing. Elsewhere, as on the opening Green Grows the Laurel, Colmanís uilleann pipes provide a resonant backdrop for Helenís sensuous rendition of the song, though maybe the most eloquent support is provided by the guitar of Michael Lempelius and the cello of Richard Bolton on As I Roved Out (and thatís only a slight Ďmaybeí!).
For simplicityís sake, Helenís reading of I Wish My Love Was a Red, Red Rose with producer Andy Metcalfe on guitar is illustrative of this albumís subtle qualities. Helenís diction throughout this and every other song is utterly perfect and she retains a remarkable capacity to resist over-ornamentation in her delivery.
Sometimes, though very rarely, Helenís voice does waver, but thatís the merest of quibbles in regard to this thoroughly gorgeous, fulfilling and utterly essential album. Shake the Blossom Early is a consummate delight.
12th November, 2004
Helenís website is the eponymous www.helenroche.net.
The album is distributed in the UK by Copperplate.