The opening drums, haunting fiddle, and mounting layers of female harmonies on the aptly titled opening track, “Awakening,” sets the stage for Celtic Woman’s most recent release, Believe. The whole thing is grandiose and theatrical, more properly aligned with a Broadway musical than a typical album release.
Not that that’s anything new for the group. Under the musical direction of Irish composer David Downes – a former orchestrator of Riverdance, of all things – since 2004, the group has juggled line-up changes, but Downes has remained the driving force behind the female ensemble, shaping it a massive brand that includes a host of concert DVDs and studio albums, giving modern and classical tunes an Irish flavour. The women who actually make up the current grouping – Máiréad Nesbitt, Lisa Lambe, Lisa Kelly, and Chloë Agnew – are not listed on the liner notes of Believe itself, aside from a note of thanks by Downes. The arrangements are more important than individual vocal tones.
The musical quality of Believe is good, but its ambitions are so large that it never feels authentic – for Celtic music, you expect something unbridled at times, but the omnipresent conductor’s baton takes care of that, while the ethereal voices sound like they’re on stage, rather than admit humility and come down to the level of the listener. That kind of treatment leads to a level of separation throughout the entire disc – even “The Parting Glass,” the closing track that begins a cappella as if being sung directly to the listener, brings in so many larger sounds that it’s clearly aiming for an auditorium audience.
Two covers – “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “A Spaceman Came Travelling” – fit naturally into the mix (the latter more so), but are only reminiscent of recital versions of the tunes; rather than come close to supplanting the originals or reinterpreting them, they just remind you that Simon & Garfunkel and Chris de Burgh are pretty cool musicians.
The problem with Believe is that, well, it’s a hard thing to believe in. The record is such a glamorous package that not even pipes and strings can shake the ballroom stuffiness. The ladies all have good voices, but the project is bigger than them, to the point that they’re little more than session musicians who have no vested interest in the music – if you’re in the market for Celtic-tinged music with interwoven female voices, you’d be much better off listening to Ashelin, an authentic sister act from this province.
Unless when you think of Ireland, you think of a Disney movie before you think of a pub.