The rude health of folk music in this day and age means fans are spoilt for choice when it comes to new music. There was a particular frisson of excitement, however, when Irish singer Cara Dillon announced a release date for her fourth solo album.
After surviving the debacle that was folk super-group Equation in the mid-’90s, Dillon has charmed our ears with three solo albums of superb quality. That said, there were a few quibblers within folk circles when her previous release (2006′s After The Morning) added some brass and strings to the mix. The naysayers were probably more piqued that Dillon gained some mainstream radio play, because to these ears the quality of the songs remained as high as usual.
On Hill Of Thieves, Dillon and her husband/producer Sam Lakeman have opted to keep things simple with the production rarely straying beyond a basic acoustic set-up. The result allows Dillon’s crystal-clear vocals to shine through, and at times it sounds as if she is singing in the same room as the listener.
The album is also the first release on Dillon and Lakeman’s Charcoal label, with the duo finally tiring of record company interference and opting to chance it on their own. There is the odd hangover from the major label days, with tracks like Jimmy Mo Mhile Stor and P For Paddy/Lament For Johnny occasionally over-egging the production by trying to cram too many instruments into the mix.
For the most part Hill Of Thieves is a thing of wondrous beauty. Comprising readings of well-known traditional folk songs there are highlights aplenty.
The title track breezes by on a rush of acoustic guitars and a pitch-perfect vocal, and is followed by the upbeat jig Johnny, Lovely Johnny. Sam Lakeman’s piano-playing comes to the fore on False, False and a stunning reading of The Parting Glass.
Hill Of Thieves becomes a more intimate family affair with the introduction of Seth Lakeman on Spencer The Rover. His vocal blends perfectly with Dillon’s dulcet tones to uncover new depths to a hoary old tune that has been covered by every folk singer under the sun. Dillon also manages to bring something new to She Moved Through The Fair, although I would have preferred a totally a cappella reading.
The album plays out with a trio of understated songs. The Verdant Braes Of Skreen features some elegant piano playing from Sam Lakeman, while The Lass Of Glenshee shows how far Dillon has progressed from The Corrs comparisons of her earlier albums. This track could easily have been an overproduced mess. Instead it is a song of rare beauty.
The closing Fil, Fil A Run � is sung totally a cappella, and if any further proof were needed that Dillon is one of the leading folk singers in the world, here it is. A magnificent ending to an album that should clean up at the BBC folk awards later in the year.