The original songs of Mark Cryle which have been called “the cultural vaccine for the Irish diaspora”.
CD review by Tony Smith
This 2021 album is notable especially as a showcase for the songwriting talents of Mark Cryle.
Of course, the songs are heard at their best only because of sympathetic arrangements by the whole ensemble of Asleep At The Reel.
It is clear why the band consisting of Cryle (vocals, guitar), Mick Nolan (vocals, bass), Hugh Curtis (fiddle, mandolin, backing vocals) and Suzanne Hibbs (drums, percussion) is popular around Brisbane.
Here they are joined by special guests Michael Fix (guitar), Sarah Calderwood (flute, whistle) and on keys Peter Harvey and Milton Quackenbush.
Curtis’ fiddle is a strong feature of most tracks and supplies perhaps the most essentially Celtic sound, while Calderwood’s whistle is also evocative.
Mandolin is an important aspect of ‘Aberdeen’ and ‘the Streets of Belfast’.
‘Aberdeen’ is the most infectious earworm among these tracks.
It rocks along and should have general appeal.
Meanwhile the guitar work is the outstanding component of ‘Less Than Lovers’.
With some groups, lyrics seem subservient to the melody and serve as little more than chants.
By way of contrast, Cryle’s songwriting is very strong and tells convincing stories.
‘Time and Tide’ tells of Thomas Meagher, a Young Irelander leader of 1848 who was transported to Van Diemens Land and escaped to America: ‘But my spirit rests in Ireland still’.
Clearly, this is a sentiment embraced generally by Asleep At The Reel.
‘Whiskey Songs/ Bramley Brae’ is pure Irish nostalgia: ‘Oh and we can sing those whiskey songs/ with a whack for me daddy oh … and raise our spirits high’.
‘The South Sea Island Trade’ is a lament by a seaman who became involved in the ‘blackbirding’ around the Pacific islands, bringing ‘Kanaka’ slaves to the sugar cane industry.
Cryle makes very astute observations about a ‘Celtic Castaway’.
She worked as a waitress all up the east coast of Australia.
He notes the plight of the many young people from Ireland who set out to work their way around but became trapped by the pandemic.
‘When My Ship Comes In’ is about gambling and knowing ‘when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em’.
This is metaphor for a broader philosophy of life and not just a warning to gamblers.
‘Rise’ was written on a trip to New England in New South Wales through bushfire blackened country and expresses admiration for the spirit of those who manage to build again among the ashes.
‘The Burning Streets of Belfast’ tells of the perils of growing up in a divided country – a war zone really: ‘He was Orange, she was green, crossed the blood lines, found each other in the spaces in between’.
‘The Streets of Irishtown’ describes the poverty and discrimination experienced by Irish people in Australian cities.
It avoids giving a romanticised view of poverty and could be challenging to sensitive ears.
‘Ghosts of Capricornia’ reminds that ‘you can hear the songlines as they’re carried on the wind/ it’s written in the bonefields in the blood that stains the sand/ the Ghost of Capricornia still haunt this ancient land’.
Cryle comments that some Australians remain reluctant to acknowledge the brutality of the colonisation process.
Without that acknowledgement, our attempts at reconciliation are condemned to failure.
On this album, Asleep At The Reel sound less Celtic than Australian.
On the other hand, fans of Irish music will immediately recognise the sentiments behind these powerful songs and it is easy enough to hear the roots of the tunes.
This is a very fine album indeed.