The Chieftains operate under the idea that most American popular music descends from Irish traditions brought across the Atlantic by generations of immigrants, up to and including the band members themselves. Their longevity—five decades and counting—is testament to the persuasiveness of that notion, as is their impressive breadth of collaborations over the past 20 years. In addition to drafting such Irish artists as Sinead O’Connor and Van Morrison to sing with them, they’ve also worked with the likes of Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, Tom Jones, The Rolling Stones and Ry Cooder, among too many others to name. How long till they do a hip-hop project?
To celebrate a half-century in the business, The Chieftains do what they do best: They play backing band to an array of artists whose music is not quite far removed from Irish jigs, reels and ballads. Unlike past efforts that explored country music, Mexican folk songs or regional Spanish music, there is no concept or genre guiding Voice of Ages, although the lack of a theme seems to be the major theme. It’s a hodgepodge in the best sense, with the dissimilarities between the guests speaking just as loudly as the similarities. This may be the only album where the Pistol Annies rub elbows with the Decemberists, Irish rockabilly singer Imelda May and Galician bagpipe mastermind Carlos Nuñez.
In a sense, a Chieftains record reflects not only the band members’ shared interest in popular music, but also the prevalent music trends of the day. Just as Down the Old Plank Road explored the post-O Brother Where Art Thou? Americana movement in 2002, Voice of Ages plumbs current indie folk and country, with varying degrees of success. Vocal harmonies play a major role, factoring into some of the best performances here, like the Pistol Annies’ lulling take on “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” and the Secret Sisters’ eloquent “Peggy Gordon.” And while pennywhistles and Uilleann pipes can often sound decorous even in the most experiences hands, the Carolina Chocolate Drops turn in a rambunctious performance of “Pretty Little Girl” that showcases Rhiannon Giddens’ powerful and boisterous voice.
Some of the higher-profile names, however, fare poorly. Bon Iver’s “Down in the Willow Garden” sounds soupy and indistinct; there’s some novelty to hearing Justin Vernon sing sensual lyrics, but he can’t quite muster the pathos to deliver a murder ballad. The Decemberists’ “When the Ship Comes In” sounds largely redundant, while Lisa Hannigan, with her low, droning vocals, fills the role that Sinead O’Connor once played with much more force and personality.
One of the best cameos on Voice of Ages is also the unlikeliest: American astronaut Cady Coleman, herself a flute player and avowed Chieftains fan, borrowed a few of their instruments to take up in the shuttle, and she plays a lovely tune from outer freakin’ space. It becomes the basis for the lovely and understated “The Chieftains in Orbit,” which is a fitting end to an album that traces the group’s considerable influence in America and beyond.