The Chieftains have arrived with one of the best country albums of the year – the country in question, of course, being just a bit east of the U.K., where Ireland’s traditional music can sound awfully darned Appalachian, when it comes down to it.
On “Voice of Ages,” the album commemorating their 50th anniversary, producer T Bone Burnett doesn’t take the Chieftains anywhere in the vicinity of Nashville, but he does play matchmaker between them and a slew of Americana-leaning indie acts, underscoring the parallel evolutionary links between their old-school music and our hillbilly roots.
Hence, we got Bon Iver, the Grammy honoree for best new artist, joining them for a vintage murder ballad, “Down in the Willow Garden.” As you might guess from Justin Vernon’s voice and general demeanor (as freshly and deliciously parodied by Justin Timberlake), it’s not a particularly fast or violent homicide.
In recent years, the Chieftains have focused on more of these all-star collaborative efforts than not, oftentimes hooking up with some fairly big rock stars. But in this case, it sounds as if Burnett’s brief to participating guest stars was to adapt to the Chieftains’ world, rather than the other way around. You can garner that just from the archaic language of song titles like “The Lark in the Clear Air,” “My Lagan Love,” and “The Frost is Over.” O brother, where art thou? Not in the 21st century, or necessarily even the 20th.
The best results come when the artists are able to impose some of their own personalities, despite the admirable attempt to not stray far from the Chieftains’ five-decade mission statement. That certainly happens with Imelda May, who’s so good at playing an American rockabilly queen in her usual gig that it’s easy to forget she’s Irish. “Carolina Rua” isn’t a particularly sexy song, but Imelda May is incapable of not sounding sexy, even when tin whistles are involved.
And “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” was tailor-made — in its own antiquated way — for the rural girl-power trio the Pistol Annies, Miranda Lambert’s side project. The Annies are known for warning the womenfolk about piggish men, and this just happens to sound like a 100-year-old version of their usual nifty routine.
On the other hand, “The Frost is Over” manages to do the impossible: render the Punch Brothers polite. When Chris Thile unexpectedly throws in a few banjo licks of his own, it makes you wish the entire album weren’t so instrumentally deferential to the Chieftains’ core lineup.
Fresh from the Grammys, the Civil Wars contribute an ancient-sounding original number, “Lily Love,” while the Decemberists drag Bob Dylan into it with a decent but not really essential cover of “When the Ship Comes In.” Other drop-ins include the Low Anthem, the Secret Sisters, and (filling the Sinead O’Connor sound-alike slot) Lisa Hannigan.
You know how a lot of contemporary duets get recorded with the artists not in the same room? Novelty alert: “Voice of Ages” offers a collaboration where the contributors weren’t even on the same planet. NASA astronaut Cady Coleman borrowed one of Paddy Maloney’s tin whistles to take into space, and she cut her part of the track “The Chieftains in Orbit” way up yonder. In space, apparently, everyone can hear you play a reel.