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Susan McKeown

Green Linnet

A couple of months ago, at a concert in Charlottesville, Va., Dublin-born Susan McKeown confessed that she’d never heard of corned beef and cabbage until she went to an Irish bar in the United States: “And ‘Erin Go Bragh’? I’d never heard it. I knew it was Irish…but it was American-Irish.” Ever since her 1995 debut, Bones, which blended Celtic folk with jazz and rock in a way many attempt but few master, McKeown has celebrated her Irish heritage while resisting its clichés. Lowlands, McKeown’s first album for Green Linnet, includes songs from Newfoundland, Scotland, and England as well as Ireland; it mixes Indian tablas and Chinese erhu with the expected Irish bodhrans and whistles. And the decade she’s spent in New York’s East Village hasn’t stamped down the lilt and winsomeness of McKeown’s powerhouse voice, which bellows the broadside “Dark Horse on the Wind,” sighs through “The Snows They Melt the Soonest,” and darts from sorrow to horror in the infanticide ballad “Bonny Greenwoodside.” No single track on Lowlands carries as much mindbending, dark wit as the bulk of Bones, which was largely written by McKeown; her characteristic style is at its best here with “Nansaí Og Ni Obarláin/Young Nancy Oberlin,” a courtship tale with a galloping bass line by Glen Moore and an arch concluding lyric that translates: “Ask your family for a dowry/Cows and sheep at the beginning of summer/And isn’t it on account of a dowry that women marry?” Although Lowlands is occasionally a bit staid, McKeown’s versions of folk songs such as “Young Nancy” and “The Lowlands of Holland” further advance her image as an iconoclastic artist who is nurtured by her heritage but never constrained by it. —Pamela Murray Winters