Folk music has been in a precarious state over the past few years. Bon Iver spawned a litany of simulacra and this has been particularly marked in the Irish music scene. It seems as if any singer-songwriter with a guitar can brand themselves as ‘folk’ whilst casting a blind eye over the key elements and fundamentals of the genre. This is not so with Ye Vagabonds – a duo consisting of Carlow brothers Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn. They started out busking on the streets of Carlow before going on to host a Monday night folk session in Walsh’s pub, Stoneybatter. It was through this that the brothers caught the eye of the film maker Myles O’Reilly whose videos of them led to an upsurge in recognition.
Their debut album does justice to folk with ten tracks gleaming with authenticity and character. It is no wonder that Glen Hansard invited Brían and Diarmuid to join him on his European tour. The great facet of Ye Vagabonds is their ability to fuse traditional Irish features with rootsy Americana-style folk and Appalachian singing. Right from the outset, they craft a homespun atmosphere on “Go Where You Will” with images of a flaming fireplace. There are descriptions of streams, blossoms and feathers evoking a pleasant, bucolic setting.
The instrumentation is akin to Celtic traditionalists The Gloaming as well stateside neo-folk acts such as Horse Feathers and Grizzly Bear. The Mac Gloinns create a rich yet rustic tapestry containing strings, banjos, delicately plucked guitars and even organs at times. And gliding over this backcloth is the Mac Gloinn’s husky harmony – the two sing in unison – often an octave apart. Their vocal harmony can be heard to the greatest effect on the exceedingly morose “Song Long Forgotten” – their guttural voices drift over lightly strummed guitar and swaying cellos.
It is fitting that this album came around in the depths of autumn. You can imagine yourselves traversing through bosky expanses dotted with orange leaves. Moreover, there are dark undercurrents to this album and a palpable need to cradle what warmth we have as the gloominess looms. The Mac Gloinns cry “dark and delicate, I try to keep you all to myself” on “Pomagranate”. This sentiment is reversed however on “Half Blind” which deals with an aimless relationship as they lamentably sing “darling, I’m not opposed to letting go this time” over sombre strings before some sad muted pizzicato notes are plucked.
Heart-rending melodies are aplenty on here, none more so than on the ensorcelling, centrepiece “Way up on the Mountain” where a character is searching far and wide for family members one-by-one as if on some spiritual pilgrimage. The track has folklore-like aura, with sparkling, mystical imagery like “I found my sister in the golden valley as the evening sun was going down”.
Elsewhere, Ye Vagabonds pay homage to their Irish roots with traditional leanings. The closer “Lowlands of Holland” boasts fantastic ornamentation as the brothers nasally blurt out another fine melody with maximum embellishment to round off the LP.
In a genre where it is easy to fall victim to cliché, Ye Vagabonds have avoided any such mistakes on their debut – an affecting, accessible yet detailed collection of folk songs. They sound like they are staying true to themselves throughout while pulling from a wide range of influences. While it is unclear whether the Mac Gloinn brothers will inspire a much-needed facelift for the Irish folk scene, the record certainly serves as a reminder of the rewards the genre can reap.