New Release (Hear Music)
It’s been decades since the Chieftains have made a real Chieftains album: one devoted to their brilliant instrumental interplay and improvisational reworkings of traditional Irish tunes. Instead they’ve retired to the role of high-class backup band, and that remains the case on their 50th anniversary album. This time they’re backing up contemporary folk-inspired artists, which smacks of trend hopping, even if most of the artists are deserving. Producer T-Bone Burnett makes it all sound formal and somber; which may work for guests Bon Iver and Lisa Hannigan but has never been the Chieftains’ nature. Predictable song choices don’t help either; surely there could have been a more creative use for the Decemberists than the millionth version of Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In.” Ah, but there are payoffs: Imelda May is the one guest who really sparks the band, and she lets her Irish accent come through for the first time. And the self-explanatory “The Chieftains Reunion” features all of the band’s living members on an 11-minute medley that keeps getting more joyful as it goes along. This, of course, should have been the direction of the whole album.