Here in America, we tend to see Irish music as falling into one of two categories.
On the one hand, there's the sort of traditional folk music people trot out for St. Patrick's Day: rowdy rebel songs by the Clancy Brothers, rollicking reels from the Chieftains, graceful fiddle and flute tunes from Altan and the like. Then there's the kind of Irish music we hear every other day of the year: rock and roll, as performed by Sinead O'Connor, U2 or the Cranberries.
Of course, there's much more to Irish music than that; we just aren't aware of it because it hasn't been readily available to American listeners. Fortunately, that's beginning to change.
Part of the charm of Irish music has always been its strong sense of national identity, but that hasn't kept Irish musicians from being influenced by American artists. Just as the music of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie encouraged Irish musicians like Christy Moore and Donal Lunny to revitalize Irish folk music in the late '60s, the lively, literate work of Nanci Griffith and Maria McKee has inspired similarly smart singers like Mary Black and Frances Black.
Although the two are no relation, it's hard not to find similarities in their work, from the subtle country influence in their songs to the rich, resonant quality of their voices. That said, it would definitely be a mistake to confuse the two. As made plain by her latest album, the retrospective collection "Looking Back" (Curb 77718), Mary Black has no shortage of mainstream pop ambition. Although her recordings rarely sound as slick as American singers like Amy Grant or Celine Dion, she does have a distinct fondness for perky pop choruses and high-gloss arrangements.
Saving her from succumbing to the predictability that usually befalls such singers are her taste in material and her way with a melody. Rather than go for brash, showy pop material, she favors tart, understated melodies that rely less on lung power than on emotional commitment.
It's not an approach likely to bowl listeners over, but it can make for some powerfully affecting music, whether the material is as sweeping as on the elegiac "Ellis Island," or as quietly beautiful as "Only a Woman's Heart."
Frances Black shares that distaste for vocal fireworks, but strikes a somewhat different tone in her latest album, "Talk to Me" (Atlantic/Celtic Heartbeat 82736). For one thing, her voice is sweeter than Mary Black's, with a light, fast vibrato that brings out the brightness in her songs; for another, she seems much more at home in the specifics of a song's narrative, so that when she tackles a tune as evocative as Nanci Griffith's "On Grafton Street," it's hard to believe she isn't speaking from her own experience.
Still, one of the biggest reasons "Talk to Me" seems so intimate and conversational is its production. The mix so heavily favors the vocals that the accompaniment seems almost subliminal at times. That's not to say the singer doesn't ever play off the band; her version of John Lennon's "Intuition" is as groove-oriented as can be. But with vocals kept front and center, the listener is pulled into the performances in a way few albums these days manage.
Of course, sonic texture is often an end in itself in pop music, and few groups have made as stunning use of it as Clannad. As anyone familiar with the oft-released "Harry's Theme" knows, this group has an ability to weave keyboards, voices and traditional instruments into a harmonic tapestry of astonishing richness.
There's plenty of that to be found on "Themes" (Atlantic/Celtic Heartbeat 82737), a collection of music the group has written for movies and television shows.
Longtime fans will find plenty of familiar material here -- not just the ghostly chords of "Harry's Game," but also the stately "Robin (The Hooded Man)," the stirring "In a Lifetime," with guest vocalist Bono, and the breathless beauty of "I Will Find You," from "Last of the Mohicans."
Given how strongly the Irish ballad tradition relies on unaccompanied solo singing, it may seem tempting to assume that the harmonic fripperies of Clannad are a recent innovation. The music on "Anuna" (Atlantic/Celtic Heartbeat 82733) would seem to argue otherwise, however.
Drawing from ancient and medieval sources, Anuna and its founder, Michael McGlynn, have concocted a sound that is both strange and familiar, evoking both the ascetic beauty of monastic chants and the pastoral splendor of Ralph Vaughan Williams' choral writing.
Still, some listeners would rather go for breadth than depth, and for them a better bet would be collections like "Celtic Legacy: A Global Legacy" (Narada 63916), or "Celtic Graces: A Best of Ireland" (IRS/Hemisphere 31216).
"Celtic Legacy" is probably the more approachable of the two, as it emphasizes the softer, more modern side of Celtic music. Although the album's lineup, which draws from Irish, Scottish, Welsh and American sources, tends to lesser-known performers, there are stellar performances by the likes of Altan (with a gorgeous reading of "Dulaman"), William Coulter and Maire Breatnach.
"Celtic Graces" tends both to bigger names and older performances. Granted, anyone hoping to get a sense of the cutting edge of Irish music will find the album utterly useless, but thanks to an excellent selection of older acts -- including Planxty, De Dannan, the Bothy Band and Paul Brady -- it offers an excellent overview of the Irish traditional sound of the '70s.
To hear excerpts from these Irish albums, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Code: 6179.