A Double Dose of Dazzling
Iona Returns With a Two-Disc Wonder

I suppose I should say something about Amy Winehouse, but I don’t have a lot to add to the conversation.

She had a nice voice, and she made a fun pop record, and from what I can tell, she died as she lived. I can’t imagine anyone was too surprised about that – her Grammy-winning hit was about refusing to go to rehab, for pity’s sake – and while I get being sad about it, I don’t feel like she was a tragic victim or anything. She died as she lived.

And in doing so, she joined the 27 Club, which is eerie. All you have to do to get in is be a famous musician, and die at age 27. Other well-known members: Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain. There are many others who aren’t as well-known, too. It’s a strange little coincidence, and Winehouse’s death only adds to the legend. Other than that, the whole thing was a sad waste. Even though I never responded to her music the way others did, I can still feel that twinge of anger I get whenever someone throws away the gift of life.

And that’s all I really have to say about that.

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I’m still sorting through pictures, videos and new CDs from this year’s Cornerstone Festival, and I still have that “I just saw a dozen bands I love” glow about me. It’s been almost a month, and I’m still giddy about it. Which is no surprise, really, since I’m still feeling something of a rush from last year’s Cornerstone, which allowed me to see several bands I’d never experienced live before.

One of those was Ireland’s magnificent Iona, a band unlike any other I know. Imagine an even mix of 1980s Rush and Clannad, or centuries-old Irish folk songs performed by a dazzlingly-talented progressive rock band. You have a powerhouse rhythm section, an almost new-age bed of keyboards, and solos on violin, guitar and uilleann pipes, sometimes all at once. And you have the strong, gorgeous voice of Joanne Hogg up front. This is a band that could, at any time, become Enya, but they never do – they play massive, dramatic music, with songs that sometimes stretch past a quarter of an hour.

Live, they’re amazing. I saw them on the relatively small Gallery Stage at Cornerstone – they closed out one of the nights, meaning they went on about 11 p.m. and played for an hour and a half. What sometimes comes off as airy and drifting on record became intense and powerful on stage. The five Ionans are phenomenal musicians, playing music unlike any other on earth, and even though founding member Troy Donockley is no longer playing pipes for them, newcomer Martin Nolan has filled his shoes admirably. Iona plays as if, where they come from, all music sounds like this. And if that’s true, it’s a place I’d love to visit.

Why am I thinking about a show I saw a year ago? Well, Iona has a new album out, called Another Realm, and listening to it takes me right back to that magical Gallery Stage night. Another Realm suffers from the same problems every Iona album has – it’s more new-agey than it perhaps should be, and the production is flatter than I’d like. But as a recorded document of what this band does, it is perhaps the best since Journey Into the Morn, considered by Iona fans an undisputed classic.

What makes it so great? To begin with, it’s the band’s first double album, clocking in at 96 minutes. This gives them the opportunity to really stretch out in places, and also allows them to let the shorter songs breathe a little more – they’re not jockeying for space with the epics here. Another Realm plays like a conceptual piece – it starts with “As It Was” and ends with “As It Shall Be,” two songs that share melodies and themes – and that only helps sell the more amorphous sections of it. In short, it’s a long, wandering record that still feels unified.

It gets off to a slow and atmospheric start. “As It Was” is just Hogg and some wispy keyboards, setting the scene, and the seven-minute “The Ancient Wells” takes some time to get going. But when it kicks in, the guitars and pipes playing a twin jig, it’s awe-inspiring. The band locks into a groove only a few times on Another Realm, but every time they do, it’s as impressive as it’s ever been.

Most of the record, however, is given over to pretty pieces with melodies that are not immediate. There are two sprawling epics here, one on each disc. The 15-minute “An Atmosphere of Miracles” barely holds together – it’s a series of mood pieces strung together by Hogg’s wonderful voice. The whole thing is so light it could float away, but listen more closely, and its contours reveal itself. I am not sure they could ever play it live without putting most of the audience to sleep, but on record, it’s surprisingly successful. And had the band confined themselves to a single disc, it probably would have been cut.

The other long piece, the 11-minute “White Horse,” all but closes out the second disc, and it’s wonderfully weird. The five-minute instrumental that precedes it, “The Fearless Ones,” is something of a prelude, and its odd, dissonant tones glide perfectly into “White Horse,” an apocalyptic tale of revelation. As the armies of Heaven march in the final minutes, Hogg sings “see his glory” over and over, and if any moment on this album makes me sit up and take notice, it’s that one.

As fans of this band know, they are deeply Christian, and this album is perhaps more plain-spoken in its faith than any other they’ve made. “Let us call out to you and declare your holy word,” Hogg sings in “The Ancient Wells,” and she spends much of the remaining 90 minutes doing just that. She calls for God’s kingdom (the “other realm” of the title) to come several times, and the whole album is about Jesus’ return to earth in the end times. Iona gets a pass from me on this, because their sound draws so heavily on the religious folk songs of their homeland, but if earnest declarations of faith are not your thing, you may want to avoid this, no matter how intriguing the band’s sound is.

And that sound is amazing, even when the quintet confines itself to four- and five-minute pop songs, as they do for about half the album’s running time. Songs like “Speak to Me” and “Foreign Soil” are lovely little ditties, and when the band grabs hold of something truly beautiful, as they do about halfway through “Clouds,” the results are just breathtaking. The double-album framework allows them to extend that one to 6:45, and it deserves it. The expanded running time also gives them the freedom to include instrumental pieces like the tender “Ruach” and the soaring “Let the Waters Flow.” (“Saviour” is the only one I wish had been dropped, and I’m not wishing that hard.)

Iona really hasn’t changed much over the years, but I don’t mind. When a band has developed a sound as singular and striking as this one has, simply spending the next 20 years refining it is fine with me. Yes, Another Realm allows the band to stretch out in ways it hasn’t before, but really, it’s just another in a long line of terrific records from a band unlike any other. Seeing them live was a highlight of my 2010, and I can’t hardly wait to do it again. Until then, this will have to tide me over. I think it’s up to the task.

Go here.

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So let’s talk about this year’s Cornerstone haul.

I’m a little more than halfway through all the records I bought this year. Of course, I listened to things like Kerosene Halo right away – the combination of Mike Roe and Derri Daughterty is simply unbeatable, especially on brilliant covers like Richard Thompson’s “The Dimming of the Day” and Tom Waits’ “Bottom of the World.” But my favorite song here is an original – Steve Hindalong’s “Bad Sense of Direction.” I find myself singing that one all the time. (You can hear the whole record for free here.)

But as usual, the new bands and other releases I picked up have taken me some time to get through. I expected I would blog about them, but I haven’t had that kind of time. That doesn’t mean these records aren’t worth reviewing, though, because some of them definitely are. I expect I’ll get to Josh Garrels next week – I am still digesting his Love & War & the Sea In Between, but I think I’m in love with it, naked spirituality and all.

For this week, though, I have two that are very much worth checking out.

The Farewell Drifters are a five-piece from Nashville. I caught them on the Gallery Stage last year, and liked them, but didn’t buy their records, for some reason. This year, though, I saw the final few numbers of their set while drifting back from Petra’s disastrous turn on Main Stage, and was smitten. The Drifters play bluegrass pop, and they take equally from both of those genres. They sport a pretty standard bluegrass lineup – guitar, acoustic bass, banjo, fiddle and mandolin, with no drummer – but the songs they write (and their glorious harmonies) owe much to Tin Pan Alley and the Beatles. (They even do a tremendous cover of “For No One.”)

The new Drifters album is called Echo Boom, and it’s pretty great. It’s more diverse than their previous efforts, bringing in more pop influences, and the songs are sharper. “Bed of My Own” is now my favorite Drifters tune, but in second place is the six-minute epic “You Were There” – it begins with a lengthy fiddle dirge, but soon morphs into a gorgeous piece of triumphant melancholy. If you like sweet melodies played on acoustic instruments, you’re going to love this, and you should add it to your collection immediately. Go here.

And then there is Songs of Water, one of the major discoveries of my 2011 Cornerstone fest.

They’re an eight-piece from North Carolina, and what they play sounds like the world in miniature. Their new album, The Sea Has Spoken, incorporates hammered dulcimer, banjo, strings, accordion, tuba, mandolin, Norwegian fiddles, doumbek, surdo, djembe, bouzouki, piano and tabla, to give you an incomplete list, and it’s like taking a magical transcontinental journey.

Most of what they do is instrumental, and stunningly diverse. The first sound you hear, on the powerhouse “Everything That Rises,” is Stephen Roach’s hammered dulcimer, and man, this guy can play. On the previous SoW album, Roach was clearly the band’s leader, but here, he’s one of many voices, adding to the whole. And the album is so much richer for it. Multi-instrumentalist Luke Skaggs wrote “The Great Russian Catastrophe,” which sounds like a European carnival fighting for its life, and co-wrote the magnificent “The Family Tree.”

There are two songs with vocals – “lyricals,” as the band calls them – and they’re wonderful, too. Roach sings both the lovelorn “Sycamore” and the spiritual “Willow,” and it’s to the band’s credit that neither sound out of place on this mainly wordless record. After their jaw-dropping set at Cornerstone, I described them as a “baby Iona.” But after hearing this album, I think they’re something else entirely, a magical mystery tour all their own.

Check them out here.

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Next week, it’s time for the new breed of troubadours, with Josh Garrels and Frank Turner. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.