‘Magpie’ No Crows review
When I walked into Sligo folk pub Shoot the Crows early in January this year I thought I would get something different but nothing could have prepared me for the musical awakening that awaited me. I was totally bushwhacked by the untamed rhythms, musical ingenuity and, most of all, the sheer unfettered originality of resident group ‘No Crows’.
No Crows latest offering ‘Magpie’ bleeds with creative brilliance and this CD transports us to an almost Dickensian world of musical grandeur. There is astonishing musical range, depth and complexity to the No Crows oeuvre; I firmly believe that they are the most unique group of their kind in Ireland today. I find many shades and moods in No Crows from Ennio Morricone to classical composers and more cultish artists such as Nick Cave. No Crows admit that a lot of the tunes they play are in minor keys and the mood of some of these tunes is comparable to sombre pieces like John Williams’ Schindler’s List theme, one that I can imagine No Crows doing justice to.
‘Magpie’ and the music of No Crows in general might aptly be described as cinematic, for it conjures a veritable array of images; flickering lights and furtive shadows. This would be ideal film score material and its disposition reminds me of several great scores I have come across lately including Johnny Greenwood’s exceptional and unsettling work for There Will Be Blood and Nick Cave’s masterful scoring of The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (especially the latter). At one of the Shoot the Crows sessions I attended, No Crows played a tune called ‘Five to Six/Exit Music For A Film’ and it features on the CD. The group semi–joked at the end of another piece that it was like ‘Entrance Music For A Film’ but I latched onto the observation and I personally would love to hear the music of No Crows in the context of a film soundtrack.
The four members of No Crows come from diverse musical traditions and pastiche their own distinctive talents into the fascinating melting pot that is ‘Magpie’. Steve Wickham of The Waterboys, as fine a fiddler as you will ever hear, has never sounded better and his wonderfully tempestuous fiddle playing is a pure treat. Mallorcan Felip Carbonell is a passionate performer who has stamped indelibly the imprint of his own native musical tradition on ‘Magpie’. Eddie Lee brings great scale to this work with his distinctive grooves on the double bass. Anna Houston is a gifted multi–instrumentalist whose playing on the cello and mandolin complements perfectly; she is a talented writer too as is evidenced by her titular track ‘Magpie’.
No Crows ‘Magpie’ album possesses a sometimes Hermannesque feel but there is no dearth of upbeat stuff either: ‘Mimi’s Chorino’ composed by bassist Eddie Lee for his newborn daughter is a musical delight and a surefire toe–tapper.
‘Magpie’ traverses acres of musical tradition with everything here from a Gregorian chant (‘Sa Sibil–la’ which Felip learned from his aunt who sang it in Palma Cathedral) to a Greek traditional (‘Pernod’) and a rare Venezuelan tune (‘La Partida’). This is an array of international instrumentals to render the word eclectic virtually redundant. The group’s originals are gems too: in Anna Houston’s ‘Magpie’, the traditional roots she shares with Steve Wickham surface; Wickham’s opening salvo ‘Crowswing’ sees two “duelling fiddles” (his and Russian Oleg Ponomarev’s) go to war in a piece that is tantamount to “a Russian bandit tune.” The group benefits from the services of an interesting cast of guest musicians, notably Cathy Jordan whose elegiac composition ‘Claudia’ features as track 2.
I have heard the No Crows session in Shoot the Crows aptly described as “world class” by one observer, a description I thoroughly agree with, and the same holds true of this album. The album ‘Magpie’ would aptly be described as world music, for it represents a fascinating mosaic of musical traditions and influences. This is high concept stuff, full of texture and nuance, that brings you on a mind–expanding musical journey across oceans and continents. Magpie’ is a handsomely mounted, richly textured album of oceanic depth and dazzling musical range; this is a collection of expertly arranged and lovingly recorded world music.
The stellar front cover artwork by Heidi Wickham, depicting two busy crows, deserves a special mention; this stark but striking painting reminds me of the moody paintings of Caravaggio and matches the mood of the music. A photo of the No Crows members donning masks in a forest on the CD sleeve adds further mystique to this inestimable group.
The music world looks very different since I discovered ‘No Crows’ – a group that constitute a university of musical excellence. Listening to the album ‘Magpie’ is like therapy; it is a haunting piece of work and its tunes are timeless and enduring while its creators are endlessly inventive and imaginative. Discovering No Crows lit up the early months of 2009 for me, a time that may otherwise have seemed like a dull and gray wasteland as has been the case for so many. The No Crows repertoire is a well of musical excellence that I know I will draw from again and again.
Marty McCool Music Reviews