It is always a reviewer’s pleasure to encounter something so extraordinarily different that it shines like a fox’s eyes on a dark lane at night and so it proves with this new offering from Navan.
This American vocal quartet takes its name from the hill fort just outside the city of Armagh associated with the legendary Queen Macha while the title of this their second (I think) album comes from a Manx Gaelic word meaning “voyage”. The title is apposite since the four singers (Elizabeth Fine, Paul Gorman, Sheila Shigley and Joan Steele) takes the listener on a tour which includes songs originating from Cornwall, Brittany, the Isle of Man, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
All the songs are sung in variants of the Gaelic language and reveal a breath-taking array of subtlety enhanced by the resonant acoustics of the recording’s location, St. Patrick’s Catholic in Madison, Wisconsin. However, it is not just this specific site which at times evokes a Gregorian element in the delivery of certain songs, but this suggestion of plainsong is reinforced by the number which are sung in unison.
However, harmonic elements are well incorporated too, as on the majestic Éamonn an Chnoic where Paul’s lower tones provide ample counterpoint to the three female voices. Equally, Amhrán Oích’ Mhaith, a Manx “goodnight song”, sees the foursome employ tender use of the voice as a drone. All the songs are delivered without any form of musical accompaniment, relying entirely on the group’s vocal strengths. In this it is reminiscent of earlier works by The Voice Squad, though that male trio’s choice of material is firmly dominated by songs in the English language.
None of the above should be interpreted as mere vocal artifice for this quartet are all excellent singers though it would have been helpful if the liner notes had identified which singer takes the lead. For instance, one of the album’s most striking songs is the lament, Tá Mé ‘Nois ‘Caoineadh, whose first part is sung solo, but the identity of the singer is not indicated.
Negative criticisms of Navan remain few, though this reviewer would have preferred perhaps a couple more songs with the vivacity and brightness of the Scottish waulking song Hè Mo Leannan to counterbalance a somewhat prevailing downbeat mode.
The liner notes contain the lyrics in both the original language and English translation and details are provided regarding each song’s source.
This is an original review by Geoff Wallis.
More information about Navan can be found at www.navan.org.