Voices of Ages

I really wanted to love this album. Voice of Ages, by the Chieftains, is a collection of collaborations between the Chieftains – one of the most prominent Irish folk bands of the last half-century – and various folk luminaries, including the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Decemberists. I was ready for it to be one of the best folk albums of the year. While there are some fantastic tracks on the record, there are too many disappointing ones for me to recommend this album to anybody who doesn’t have a vested interest in folk music.

I really like the work of the Chieftains, and some of my favorite folk-ish musicians were involved with the project. And, while I’m not as conversant in traditional Irish folk music as I am in the American tradition, Voice of Ages does much to meld those traditions. Too bad it’s so busy.

More often than not, instead of some sort of folk music dialectic, it seems like the Chieftains and their collaborators either clash, or the collaborator’s musical aesthetic overtakes that of the Chieftains. This can be seen quite clearly in “Pretty Little Girl,” an Irish traditional recorded here with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, one of the best modern traditional folk interpreters in the business. They’ve performed Irish songe before: “Real Old Mountain Dew,” off of Heritage, is one of their best. Here, however, the panoply of string instruments seems overwhelmingly busy and distracting.

Similarly irksome was the Bon Iver collaboration, “Down in the Willow Garden.” There’s no denying it’s a pretty song. He adds his trademark vocal styling and it works, it really does, at least as far as Bon Iver songs are concerned. But there are enough Bon Iver songs floating around these days that I would have much rather heard him work with a Bodhran, or a tenor banjo, or a pennywhistle. Or anything. “Down in the Willow Garden” has about as much heft as the satirical Bon Joviver cover of “You Give Love a Bad Name.”

Sometimes it does pop. “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” with the Pistol Annies blends Irish reeds and Bodhrans with Appalachian fiddle ballad instrumentation so well that, depending on the listen, I’m not sure what sort of folk music it is. “Lily Love” with the Civil Wars walks that same fine line - it’s evocative, in an especially Irish way, but it maintains whatever aesthetic that the Civil Wars (a band I am unfamiliar with) brings to the table.

The album’s standouts, however, (honorable mentions to “School Days are Over” with the Low Anthem, and “When the Ship Come In” with the Decemberists, both fantastic cuts) can’t temper the fact that this is just a disappointing album. I was so excited about this album, and the caliber of artist participating should have validated that. And the songs that are good are more than good. I would feel perfectly comfortable recommending any number of these songs to any of my friends who are interested in folk or traditional music. But, as a collaborative album, this album’s inconsistency is too widespread, and kind of disappointing.