Luka Bloom - Album Review

Between The Mountain And The Moon

Review by Karl Catteeuw

Does Luka Bloom make modern celtic music? Such categories are handy, but his newest record surely stretches the term. Mariachi musicians to turkish drumming, playing mandoline or an Indian musical handbag, and still making Irish music? It certainly is his most varied effort yet. The man is known primarily as a charmismatic live performer who can mesmerize a crowd with just his electro-acoustic guitar and his voice. He used that direct in-your-face technique to some extent in his earlier recordings like "Riverside" and "Acoustic Motorbike"; remember the homegrown folk arrangement he made out of the New York rap "I need love"? And his last year's release (the man is making an awful lot of music) was a collection of punk, rock and disco covers all done as if they were originally written by the fireside of some Kildare cottage. "Turf" took it to the extreme: a live solo recording in a studio, the only difference with Springsteen's Nebraska was the inaudible audience. The man's trick is his simple approach.

BTMATM And still, this richly arranged album full of exotic input is definitely Irish. The themes seem to bring his worldwide travellings back home. Where the first cds were about his new life in the U.S. (NY and Washington) and the return to his family in Ireland, the Mountain and Moon cd is about the Ireland he recognises everywhere. "You may travel for far, ... but there's none to compare with the Cliffs of Doneen", to cite his elder brother. The cover picture, taken by Luka Bloom himself, shows Buddhist prayer flags in front of a pale moon in the blue West Cork skies.

The songs then. (Love is a) Monsoon demonstrates how lovely the Irish humide climate can be, if you understand it can get your lover wet. Let the rain poor down on love. The cymbal crushes, the sitar-like mandola bits, the back ground ya-yayas, the parlando voice all make it sound very indian, but the weather is definitely Atlantic, as is the string orchestra filling in.

Here and Now is recorded in a rather straightforward way, the cello and viola brooding under a guitar strum and the desperate voice; nothing's the same anymore after love's gone, although "I have to dream again", "dream on, dream on, dream on". Nice but very soft pizzicato in the end, as if they don't want to intrude as the 'hornpipes, jigs and reels' did in the lyrics.

There's more fun in (Looking for the) Perfect Groove. A whole percussion shop must have been used for this one, drums of all kinds clatter along with the melody. Just to make sure we're looking for nothing of astral importance here, just for a good time. Or for the 'Perfect You'. A funny violin goes sitar once again, the horns join in for the groove's sake, as do the 'yaaa-yaaa-yaaas'.

The gem of the record is Love is a Place I Dream of, starting with a Ennio Morricone harmonica and a gently plucked Spanish guitar. The voice is melancholous, until Sinead O'Connor lifts up the tone of Luka's voice: 'just you wait, and I'll prove my love for you'. The voices fit prefectly, they make you try to sing along.

What you hear is no synthesiser, it sounds more like a string section making chordal waves. It is in fact the sound of a guitar, sent through an effect pedal. The singing is very much upfront, in your ears. Luka's crying out for help of a guardian angel Gabriel. In concert Luka told the song was written to explain angels to his son. The artist is better at writing songs than at theology though: Gabriel is the Archangel traditionally associated with the announcement of pregnancy or birth (of Jesus, John the Baptist; Luke). 'Angelos' is Greek for messenger, and that's what Gabriel was in the first place. If you want a real guardian angel, one that shows you the right way and uses a sword to fight of ennemies and problems (an image popular from the 16th century onwards) then Luka should have gone for Raphael (protector of Tobias; Tobit) or Michael (supporter of the bannished Isrealites; Exodus). But I must admit, Gabriel is a nicer sounding name.

Soshin starts with Luka's typical guitar strum, but very soft this time, combined with the drone accordeon. The song is about Asian ricefields and mountains, where an Irish woman lives - the Irish flute sets in, followed by the violins. The woman, Maura O'Halloran, finds her place in Buddhism, gets her new name, 'Soshin'. When she decides to return to her family as a new person, Maura/Soshin was killed in a bus crash, but still her spirit lives on. As 'Soshin': "In this silent Easter morning she has found a friend in me".

Moonslide was known in concert as 'No resistance'. Perhaps Luka's best instrumental technique is demonstrated here in the very high picked notes which accompany a rythmical singing. The lyrics are in invitation to dive into live, into love with 'no resistance'. 'Come in love' is the very high sung chorus, joined by Sinead O'Connor once again. Another nice thing in Luka's music are the singable tunes - if you listen to this song, you'll 'ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta' along at the end.

If there is an Eastern touch to this record, then that's clearly proven with this tune. There's no a guitar, just a buddhist drone. The melody is delicate and celtic, the old title of As I waved goodbye was 'Leaving Lhasa': Heinrich Harrer painfully leaving his friends after his seven years in Tibet - 'It was too much to take in'. Luka said he liked making this studio album a lot, an experience he hasn't had before with his other albums - and you can tell he had fun by the lovely birds that finish off the song. If someone ever tells you Luka is a good performer but a mellow lyrics writer, give them this song for an answer.

If there is a Western touch to this record, then it's the mariachi trumpets starting this song, I'm a Bogman. 'Mariachi' is derived from marriage, and it is festive indeed, accordeon and percussion inviting for a dance. The lyrics are about travelling the world, liking that, but still belonging home in some grey wetlands on the cold ocean shores. The song was recorded before for some versions of 'Salty Heaven' with Christy Moore, but the nice thing about this version is that the lyrics are reflected in the music: it's a genuine Luka tune (a celtic rock beat, even a rap style singing in the verses) framed within his likes of exotic music. Here's Luka Bloom, the man who likes to play didgeridoo on a guitar, but ends up sounding like an Irish bogman anyway. Again, the fun in the recording process can be heard in the falling apart of all the instruments at the end: a trumpet here, some lost notes on an accordeon there, someone laughing out loud, a guy trying two notes on an electric guitar - someone pulled out the plug?

Perhaps a tribute to the recording engineer who made him feel comfortable with studios, the next tracks begins with Brian Masterson encouraging him to start the song ("Hey, come one there, big fellow"), Luka doing a countdown. This song is based on Luka's fast rythmical guitar strumming, with the acoustic guitar recorded more upfront and direct than ever. If you want Luka playing in the same room as you are, then this is the way to record him. The strumming I talked about combines chords, bass patterns and even some melody. After the chorus there is - another old Luka feature - a sing-a-long 'O-way-ee-o, o-way-ee-o' part. If you listen closely, there's someone whispering along - the technician Masterson? They both end up murmuring the 'o-way-ee-o' parts in the end, in a very low voice. The lyrics are as simple and beautiful as the way of recording: enjoying a simple life, being happy just because it's a Rainbow day.

I'm not completely sure about the last track. It sets in the way Gabriel does, waves of guitar sounds rolling up on the shore. The song is about Micho Russell, an almost forgotten traditional Irish musician and singer. who had Hands of a farmer, dreams of a child. There's normal, gentle guitar strums over the processed guitar. Luka's nephew, Conor Byrne plays a beautiful soft flute, Russell's instrument. Luka even imitates Russell's singing: "Boys oh boys, I'm glad to meet you, in Doolin you would sing." A bit slow and soft, but it's the end of the record, isn't it?

It's the most varied record Luka ever made, so listen to it, and lend it to others, and let them buy it. That's all I can say about it. Why does this record leave me silent for a few minutes, every time I've played it?

Karl Catteeuw
28 November 2001

© Rena Bergholz - Luka Bloom Page