John Williams & Dean Magraw: Raven

John Williams & Dean Magraw
Raven
Compass

Shit-faced renditions of "Danny Boy," rustic barn dances after the spud harvests, and scenes from 19th-century costume dramas involving knee-bending jigs and tilt-a-whirl reels have all conspired to provide traditional Irish music with a reputation for sloppy exuberance. On Raven, Williams and Magraw fillet that stereotype with X-acto knife discipline and delicacy. Nevermore indeed.

There are jigs, faster-paced "slip jigs," and even a few note-melting reels among the 14 tracks, but the duo's interplay is ever alert to harmonic nuance, prioritizing the weave of tapestry over the gush of speed. Magraw dapples acoustic guitar notes like an aural impressionist against the sigh of Williams's squeezeboxes (push-button accordion and concertina), seamlessly fleshing tentative melodies into works of flush, ruddy splendor that aren't the least bit belabored. A moody, 53-second snippet, "Awakening," yields to "The Gypsy Queen," a barn dance tune that has the natural, effortless sway of a hammock when you first fall in. The serpentine, off-kilter rhythms leading off Magraw's jig, "Trippin' in Eden," reenacts the forced savoir faire of a potentially calamitous fall rescued by one's catlike grace. The firm-footed landing segues into the sprinter's stretch of Williams's furious but pristine reel, "The Mason's Men."

There are also more reflective changes of pace. "Perdition Piano Duet," from Williams's contribution from the Road to Perdition soundtrack (he's also the co-founder of the band Solas), has a prow for a forehead it broods so intensely. "Lianna," Magraw's tribute to the innocence of a child dancer, is a waltz as wistful as a solitary brunch at a Parisian café on a cloudy day. At times the duo's refined technique makes this slower fare all the more ponderous, and likewise sterilizes the more filigreed, uptempo numbers. But sometimes the two air out their tapestry with sunny disposition, as on the incandescent "Kilnamona," a love song of gratitude by Magraw, whose lymphoma has been in remission now for the past four years. And a live performance of the giddy reel "Youenn" ends the disc with an exuberant (but still fastidious) flair.

 
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