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“Everyone else seems to want to tart up the raw, ancient stuff to make it palatable,” says Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird. He could be unwittingly referring to his producer Michael Brook, whose pop treatments of qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on Night Song and Mustt Mustt were so tarted up they made you pucker. But for Ó Lionáird, whose Gaelic séan nos singing is traditionally done unaccompanied, Brook has crafted a timeless web of modal drones. Like fellow Real World artist Sheila Chandra, whose exquisite ABoneCroneDrone successfully mixes traditional singing with modern technology, Ó Lionáird’s solo debut The Seven Steps to Mercy is a propitious meeting between the present and the primordial. The CD booklet’s English translations and Ó Lionáird’s synopses provide background for the melancholy, mysterious songs, but the singer’s commanding tenor provides all the narrative you need. Sandwiched between the two most modern tracks—”Aoibhinn Cronan—The Humming of the Bees,” with its slowed-down breakbeats, and “Cuir A Choladh An Seanduine—The Old Man Rocking the Cradle,” with its scratchy record samples and what sounds like Ó Lionáird singing over the phone—is the a cappella showcase “Loch Lein.” But the album’s most remarkable tunes are its opener and closer: On “Seacht—Seven,” the 33-year-old Ó Lionáird recounts the harrowing tale of an immigrant who returns to his village only to find it deserted, while “Aisling Gheal—Bright Vision” is an innocent tale of a beautiful woman, recorded when the higher-voiced singer was just 14. For Ó Lionáird, the now and the then are as one.

—Christopher Porter