Celestially Orchestral Lushness and Persistent Unease on Lisa Hannigan’s Live Album

by delarue

We may not have concerts in New York right now, but more and more artists are realizing the benefits of recording live albums. Unless you make your albums on your phone – as many do – it’s infinitely cheaper to record a concert than to run up studio time. And live albums are the best advertising: prospective concergoers know exactly what they’re getting themselves into. One relatively recent one that perfectly fits the zeitgeist is Live in Dublin, by Lisa Hannigan and S t a r g a z e (that’s how she spells it), streaming at Spotify.

Hannigan has a soaring, nuanced voice and stately cadences that reflect the folk tradition of her native Ireland. Her lyrics are pensive and often rather dark. The concert’s opening waltz, Ora, perfectly capsulizes the balance of persistent unease and lush, starry atmosphere that will pervade the rest of the set. The long, sustained tones of the strings and woodwinds are a throwback to the terse orchestral arrangements common on European folk-rock records of the early 70s. Then the bass and drums kick in elegantly behind an upward swirl from the strings as the soul-tinged piano ballad Prayer For the Dying gets underway: Radiohead meets Renaissance.

Twinkling mandolin and vibraphone mingle above the increasingly lavish backdrop of Little Bird. “You are lonely as a church despite the queueing out the door – I am empty as a promise,” Hannigan muses.

Insistently slurry strings and ominous brass swells build unsettling druidic ambience in Undertow. Overtones rise in a similarly suspenseful vein from the low brass drone that introduces Bookmark, a swing ballad stripped to its bare, fingerpicked bones: “Am I a friend, or an unwieldy heroine?” Hannigan ponders.

The band take a break for the rustic vocal harmonies of Anahorish, which foreshadows what Irish immigrants would bring with them to Appalachia. The tenderness of Hannigan’s vocals bely the melancholy, pulsing orchestral textures of Nowhere to Go. The energy of the concert hits a high point with Lo, a moody anthem with a neat web of counterpoint.

They back away for a trip-hop sway with Swan, which the orchestra elevates above the level of generic 90s pop. A hushed gloom grows more enveloping in We the Drowned, up to a mighty, stricken intensity with eerie backing vocals and echo phrases from the orchestra: it’s the high point of the show. After that, there’s nowhere to go but down with Lille, a spare, gently fingerpicked, wistful folk-rock ballad.

After that, A Sail comes as a surprise, a stomping, insistent, backbeat anthem and the most unselfconsciously catchy song of the set. The group shift from hazy atmospherics to equally hypnotic but more energetic trip-hop with Barton and close the night with Fall, an attractively strummy anthem: “Drain the spirits from the jar, hop the fences, steal the car,” Hannigan instructs rather somberly.