At last, RUNA has released “Current Affairs.” It has been worth the wait. This is their fourth album and it shows a growth and expansion that was unanticipated in its breadth and depth. Especially since “Somewhere Along the Road” was such a very fine album. “Current Affairs” is so well-developed that it is bound to break the barriers that are created by a limited-genre listing.
Indeed, RUNA cannot any longer be simply categorized as solely Celtic, any longer. “Current Affairs” propels RUNA into untraveled provinces that await them with open arms. Some of the material on “Current Affairs” is rightly called bluegrass, as might be expected with the likes of guest musicians such as Bon Block, Buddy Greene and Jeff Taylor—Grammy nominees all—in addition to Patrick D’Arcy.
RUNA remains almost the same in its personnel with one sole exception, Maggie Estes White has replaced the irreplaceable Tomoko Omura on violin. White brings a raw approach and, for this album, it suits the material very well. After all, Kentucky-based White has bluegrass in her blood.
“The Wife of Usher’s Well” is a traditional ballad with a history threaded throughout Britain and America. The story tells of a woman who has sent her three sons overseas for schooling only to discover that they have perished along the way. The mother is visited by the shades of the lost lads when they come to bid her a final farewell.
Jeff Taylor (from Elvis Costello’s band) adds his brilliant accordion playing to White’s violin. All the while, Cheryl Prashker punctuates the arrangement with her rapid-fire percussion. Prashker is always a bright spot with a great sense of the propulsion required for each peace. She is not simply a time-keeper, she pushes the music.
“Henry Lee” is an aggressively told tale of the universal Lothario male who, in this telling, gets his just desserts in the end. The performance is counter-pointed between White’s flighty violin and de Barra’s menacing bass. Prashker’s drumming is the inexorable march to Henry Lee’s comeuppance. A well-told episode engagingly narrated by both vocals and instrumentation.
Amos Lee (no relation to Henry Lee) penned the fifth track “Black River” and it is sung soulfully by Dave Curley. The song is an appeal to various forces—“savior”, “whiskey” and “river”—to “carry my cares away.” It is a touching performance.
Two pieces—“Aoidh, Na Déan Cadal Idir” and “A Chomarigh Aoibhinn Ó”—were woven together with a superb segue from lullaby to ballad. Again, the vocals carry the strength of the pieces while the guitar and violin add the sweet melancholy to the track.
One of the most fascinating pieces of the whole album is “Ain’t No Grave” by Claude Ely. This is an Appalachian gem—a précis of Ely’s sermons regarding the exchange of a life of hardship and disappointment for a life free of troubles.
Ely’s influence has been attributed to many influential musicians. Johnny Cash even recorded a cover of the song. RUNA, however, has taken the song—with its emphasis on drive and rhythm—and turned it into a RUNA masterpiece of arrangement and performance.
The agonized violin backdrop to the vocal anguish is transformed into a powerful piece of hope and determination. Fionán de Barra’s strident guitar with Curley’s mandolin and White’s skittering bow on violin is inspiring and invigorating. The mourning of the beginning surrenders to the thrill and energy of the conclusion. There is a hard groove here that is unforgettable. That groove almost turns this into a Gospel-Jazz piece—perhaps the most memorable on the album.
“The Ruthless Wife” is the only track on this album written by Shannon Lambert-Ryan and Fionán de Barra. It is centered on the death of Shannon’s great-great-grandfather in 1922. Again, Shannon’s crystal-clean enunciation in her singing makes the tale completely understandable and entertaining. The chord changes are stellar and Cheryl’s percussion is riveting. This is a classic-in-the-making.
The second “set” of the album is “The Land of Sunshine” and includes “Land of Sunshine,” “Paddy Lynn’s Delight,” “Gan Ainm” and “Donald Blue.” The set was compiled and arranged by Dave Curley. The play between violin, mandolin, banjo and guitar is intoxicating. This is a set that begs a dance and is pure joy.
Those vocals get their finest moment on “The Last Trip Home” by Davey Steele. Shannon’s vocals soar and catch the wind as Fionán anchors the piece with delicate guitar and bass. It may very well be my favorite vocal piece for Shannon. It is warm and memorable and completely enthralling.
Celtic, Folk, Bluegrass, Gospel—even a brush of Jazz—and Blues, RUNA has developed an encompassing sound that will most certainly expand their fan base. Their arrangements are better than ever. Their musicianship is exciting, thrilling, warm and fun without ever losing their great skill at telling familiar tales.
While “Somewhere Along the Road” was indeed a landmark album, “Current Affairs” has shown RUNA pass by that landmark and moving on to new frontiers.
Visit RUNA's web site here: http://www.runamusic.com/wordpress/
and on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/RUNACelticmusic
Purchase RUNA's "Current Affairs" at CD Baby here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/runa14