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David Kidman of fRoots

reviews Away in the West by Mick Ryan & Paul Downes

Over the past 20 years, Mick's been responsible for some of the finest original songs to come out of the contemporary tradition, for he's always shown a special empathy with historical perspectives and dramatic subjects and narratives. At the same time, his exceptional singing voice has placed him at the forefront of English folk song interpretation. Mick's singing and songwriting are once more brought together most persuasively on his latest CD which takes the form of a further collaboration with Paul Downes, one of the most respected instrumentalists on the folk scene.

This time round, all but one of the tracks are Mick's own compositions (although Upon A Field and South Armagh both utilise traditional melodies). No fewer than three songs were directly inspired by Mick's visit to the National Trust Workhouse Museum (two of them, The Pauper's Path and the powerful The Institute, serve to bookend the disc). A theme common to several of the songs is man's courage, personal, moral or universal, and the inspiration derived from it. For instance, Love Is Life was written after the death of Mick's own father, while Fire Against The Cold was informed by how Brian Keenan, a key facilitator in the recent Irish peace process, had earlier in his life coped with solitary confinement.

Two of the songs have their origins in Mick's folk musicals (Summer Is A Coming In from A Day's Work and How Wide's The Ocean? from The Voyage), while the stirring The People Must Be Amused derives from the catchphrase of a Dickensian circus owner. The album's closest approximation to a traditionŽal ballad, the seven minute Jack In Luck, is based on a Grimm's Fairy Tale recalled from childhood. Here Paul's mandocello accompaŽniment comes into its own, although Paul's musicianship is brilliant throughout the disc, entirely sound and vitally supportive, always appropriate for the setting (either rhythmic and driving, as on No Evil, or else gently chimŽing, as on The Bells Rang), while his keen harŽmony vocal work also ideally complements Mick's own rich tones.

Additional mildly lavish colourings are provided from time to time by Jackie Oates (five string viola) and Paul Hutchinson (accordeon). The songwriting is beautifully crafted and entirely consistent with Mick's oeuvre, and while Away In The West might not appear to contain any outright first time attention grabbers among its 13 songs, Mick nevertheless still delivers with another classy and well coordinated set.