Many Happy Returns - Arcady (2 Disk)

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With its roots in the traditional sound of De Danaan, Arcady waited four years after their debut to release Many Happy Returns, and a happy return it is indeed. With its focused Irish approach, relaxed and sparkling musicianship, this is an album that stands as an unalloyed joy, and a benchmark of Irish music amid all the "Celticisms" that have abounded. In vocalist Niamh Parsons, the band discovered an astonishing talent, with a warm, slightly husky voice strongly reminiscent of Sandy Denny. Her rendition of "The Rocks of Bawn" is nothing less than quietly glorious, and even the bed of synthesizer tones fails to sound cheap and cheesy underneath. The six-piece group is heavily augmented, but, once again, it's done with superb taste, like Neil Martin's cello contributions (not an instrument generally associated with Irish music). The jogs and reels are thankfully not taken at breakneck, frenetic speed, and founder Johnny McDonagh leads from behind with his bones and bodhran percussion, letting Nicholas Quemener, Conor Keane, and Brendan Larrissey weave their magic upfront. The result is little short of perfect, especially when Parsons' magical voice is added to the mix. If you want to get near to Celtic heaven, try "The Banks of the Lee," which alone is worth the price of admission. They really don't come any better than this. ~ Chris Nickson.