In an attempt to ride the successful coattails of Clannad and Enya during the 1990s, labels attempted to package Celtic music as the next new thing in world music.
While folk labels such as Green Linnet and Shanachie played up their indigenous creds, major labels opted for the safety of crossovers. So in 1996, EMI released a compilation titled Common Ground: Voices of Modern Irish Music.
The intent was simple enough — survey the various forms in which Irish music takes, ranging from such traditionalists as Davey Spillane and Dónal Lunny to superstars in the form of Bono and Adam Clayton of U2.
Of course, Máire Brennan opens the compilation with a traditional song sung in Irish and arranged for a pop band. After that, the concept splinters. The big names — Elvis Costello, Sinéad O’Connor, Tim and Neil Finn, Bono and Adam Clayton — stay in their pop music realms, while the traditionalists remain in theirs.
When the twain meet, it doesn’t come across as organic as it ought to. Brian Kennedy and O’Connor turn in nice performances of their respective traditional choices, but that’s all they are … nice. They aren’t illuminating nor particularly daring.
Kate Bush, on the other hand, takes the biggest leap, singing in Irish, and Liam Ó Manolaí of Hothouse Flowers tackles mouth music in a searing performance.
Otherwise, the parts don’t really add up to a very compelling sum.
When I spotted a copy of this compilation at the Lifelong Thrift Store selling for $1, I had forgotten why I let it go, considering the inclusion of Bush, Brennan and a number of Irish musicians I followed at the time.
After listening to it again, I’m reminded of the Chieftains attempt to do something similar with their album The Long, Black Veil. They couldn’t make it work either.
Crossover is fraught with all sorts of issues about appropriation and performance practice, and in the title alone, Common Ground takes too diplomatic a stance. I would rather see these musicians mix it up further, blurring distinctions entirely or embracing roles furthest outside of their comfort zones.