Dublin-born NYC singer Susan McKeown built her reputation on mixing the ancient songs of her native isle with fearless modern sensibilities, incorporating tape-looped pennywhistles and jazz-inflected bass work. Sweet Liberty continues this tradition of inspired unpredictability, embellishing her Celtic base with elements of traditional African and Mexican music.
McKeown’s pure contralto, clear and stirring, is displayed powerfully on the album’s 10 tracks, as well it should, considering the stark, minimalistic accompaniment leaves no room to hide. English neo-folk upstarts Flook add energy to opener “The Wee Birds All Have Come and Gone.” Otherwise, McKeown stands front-and-center, singing beautifully on ballads that feature light piano or acoustic guitar/fiddle accompaniment. She’s at her best in precisely such a setting, and on the sentimental seafaring ballad “Shamrock Green” she summons a world of soulful longing and sorrow, at times recalling the wondrous pipes of the late Sandy Denny, at others the stately beauty of June Tabor.
Her world-music experiments with the Malian ensemble Tartit on “Oró Mhíle Grá (A Thousand Times My Love)” and Mexico’s Mariachi Real de Mexico on “Eggs in Her Basket” are more problematic. One has to admire her eclectic reach, but the results are more jarring than pleasing. Still, this is a beautifully sung album, and fans of traditional Celtic music and great ballad singing will warm to it immediately.