Playing time: 45 minutes
Availability (out of 3): 2
Related website(s): http://elmcmeen.com
My rating: 9/10
I like… The clean, adept, sonorous, evocative playing
I’m less keen on… Nothing really, though some would prefer the addition of other instruments and/or the inclusion of other genres
I first came across El McMeen through guitar tutorial material produced by Stefan Grossman. Many of the tunes on this album are featured on an El McMeen guitar instructional DVD.
The CD is a selection of Irish music, mainly traditional, played solo on acoustic steel-strung guitar. I suppose that some people may wish for a bit more variety, for example, for one or two tracks to have another instrument playing alongside or in the background.
El McMeen, an American player who is steeped in Irish music, has a lovely technique on guitar and is able to produce a fabulous tone from it.
In part, this is due to his use of altered tunings (his commonest is CGDGAD); tuning the bottom string tuned down four semi-tones to a C gives a very sonorous and overtone-laden sound.
Guitar players may also be interested to know that he often uses a capo, experimenting which at which fret to anchor the stings to get a different sound.
Placing it several frets up produces what he sometimes refers to as a bell-like quality. If you aren’t a guitar player, you may (or may not!) like to know that a capo is an adjustable but removable bar that can be clamped across the guitar strings to raise their pitch.
El’s real strengths are twofold. His playing is remarkably empathetic and evocative. Some tunes on this album can genuinely produce a physical sense of wellbeing or of delight in me.
Coupled to that is his skilful technique. In particular, El “flavours” his playing with techniques that are unique to guitar (or perhaps to guitar and some other stringed instruments); always, however, his technique is the servant of his sound, never employed simply to impress. Inparticular, his moving bass lines add a lot of variety and provide some lovely fills.
Guitar Player Magazine, quoted on his website, deemed his playing “stirring… unbridled acoustic beauty” and “drop-dead gorgeous.” He is certainly worth checking out by any lover of acoustic guitar and/or Irish music – though some of his albums contain a wider variety of genres.
This album features a number of tunes by the legendary blind Irish harp player Turlough O’Carolan. These tunes are, in my opinion, simply gorgeously rendered.
O’Carolan lived from the mid-17th to the mid-18th century, and is often thought of as Ireland’s definitive musical composer. With a harp and a horse, he travelled Ireland and composed many songs for patrons of his music.
This CD comes in a jewel case and the 8-page accompanying booklet gives some interesting notes about the origin of each tune, how El first heard it, and how he plays it. I really do find that this sort of information enhances my listening enjoyment.
There are 17 tracks on the album, which plays for 45 minutes in total. Some are single tunes; others, typically of the genre, are medleys. Medleys always intrigue me as one tune gives way to another of a similar, or sometimes quite different, mood.
Danny Boy (Londonderry Air)
needs little introduction, except perhaps to note that it existed as an instrumental “air” before the well-known words were put to it.
Here’s a URL link to El playing it – the clip itself is disabled for playing through other routes:
El plays it with great expression, and there are some lovely flourishes and variations that truly add to its poignant feel. In the accompanying booklet, El states that this tune never sounded as he wanted when he played it, until he stumbled across the CGDGAD tuning that he mostly uses. The video clip is a different rendition to that on the CD (I slightly prefer the rendition on this CD for its simpler arrangement).
Castle Of Dromore/ Will Ye Go, Lassie?
The first tune in this medley is taken from a lullaby. The two tunes have a real feel-good factor to me, a happy-sad sort of feel.
The Blarney Pilgrim; The Gypsy Rover
Many people will recognise these two tunes (each a separate track), even if they don’t know their names. After a slowish introduction, “Blarney Pilgrim” is fairly upbeat. I always feel that he must have had a lot of fun recording it. He throws in some lovely flourishes, with a bit of a swank-and-swagger feel to them. Gypsy Rover is similarly a foot-tapper of a tune!
One Morning In May/ Boys Of The Ould Brigade
“One Morning” begins this medley in a joyful way. The second tune then takes its place. It is a song of the IRA from some time in the fairly distant past. Whatever your views on the song’s origins, it’s a splendid and doleful tune. The lyrics do indeed evoke a soldier’s lament for his fallen comrades. The pace and expression of El’s playing here is very poignant. I have a couple of Irish high whistles (one a cheap brass one, the other a good quality alloy one) that I like to play this tune on.
Sheebeg and Sheemore
Another traditional Irish piece from the pen (and harp) of O’Carolan. The spelling of the tune above is as per the sleeve notes, but it is often written in its Gaelic form (e.g. Sidhe Beag agus Sidhe Mor). On the album version in particular, El captures something of the sound of a harp by playing “arpeggios”, plucking one string, then another, then another in succession.
He also plays it on a “high-strung” guitar, which is simply a standard guitar with the lower-pitched strings replaced by their equivalent higher pitched ones. The range of pitch is reduced, but what is lost in pitch is gained in a more sparkling sound and effect. He uses the same trick on some of the other tunes on the album.
Song For Ireland
To be truthful I’m not overly keen on El’s rendition of this lovely, homesick song. As with a lot of improvisation, it departs so much from the original melody that, when I first heard it, I barely recognised it. Those who don’t know the song or who know it but are more able to accept this on its own merits will probably like it.
Bridget Cruise; Eleanor Plunkett
These two O’Carolan tunes (each forms a separate track on the album) are gorgeous, especially “Eleanor Plunkett” which is gorgeously sad. In the notes El describes a couple of features he employed to bring out the “mournful quality missing in some other arrangements”. It’s another O’Carolan composition.
The story goes that O’Carolan thought that, for his health’s sake, he would have to give up whisky. His doctor friend advised that he didn’t need to do so (for “receipt” read “recipe” or maybe “prescription). No wonder this tune is so cheerful! It is my favourite on the album and is full of lilting exuberance.
This album makes for a fine listen. Some will undoubtedly find it a bit “samey” because it is made up of Irish music played solo on guitar, but the recording captures a number of “moods” and “feelings”. It is very relaxing to listen to and would make very unobtrusive background music, but I prefer to listen carefully and soak it up. As mentioned earlier, some of El’s other albums feature a range of genres; I have “Acoustic Guitar Treasures” which I will perhaps review some time!
ARYEH FRANKFURTER: The Music Of O’Carolan (O’Carolan’s Dream) (Harp playing)
JOEMY WILSON: Celtic Dreams (Music Of Turlough O’Carolan On The Hammered Dulcimer Vol III)
Although this is a non-profit-making blog, I am anxious to credit illustrations:
El Mcmeen image: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/mX4oa9j4tPA/maxresdefault.jpg
Guitar & capo: https://tse4.mm.bing.net/th?id=OIP.KNj5bpK9bWu5hfYZC-DeXAEsDh&pid=15.1&P=0&w=300&h=300
O’Carolan image: http://www.rootsworld.com/celtic/carolan.jpg