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CD Review: Mick Moloney, "McNally's Row of Flats"

If you’re in the mood for something different, you’ll find “McNally’s Row of Flats” (Compass Records) to be one of the most entertaining history lessons you could ever ask for. Performed by Mick Moloney, a Limerick native who’s made his home in America for many years, this collection highlights the comedy and lyrical skill of Ed Harrigan and David Braham, who together wrote many of Broadway’s most popular songs in the 1870s. At the time, they were performed by Harrigan and his onstage partner Tony Hart, in lavish productions that made the pair incredibly wealthy and famous. Both Harrigan and Hart were of Irish descent, and angled many of their song and dance numbers toward New York’s Irish immigrants.

Mick Moloney is one of those people you should know about if you’re interested in Irish music. He’s known as a musical anthropologist, educator (he teaches in the Irish studies program at New York University) and general guiding light for Irish players. When I interviewed guitarist John Doyle, who has a producer’s credit on this CD, he said of Moloney, “everyone comes to him for songs. The music scene follows him.” For “McNally’s Row of Flats,” Mr. Moloney has pulled together a great cast of traditional Irish musicians the give these old songs an authentic but fresh feel.

Moloney has a lilting but not over-sweet voice that’s just right for Braham and Harrigan’s songs. While the 14 tunes here convey the difficulties faced by immigrants before the turn of the 19th century, they’re laced with plenty of humor. The title track paints a picture of tenement life: “And it’s Ireland and Italy, Jerusalem and Germany, Chinese and Africans and a paradise for rats...they constitute the tenants in McNally’s row of flats.” The protagonists of “The Regular Army O,” don’t waste too much respect on the military, singing “seventeen American dollars each month we’d surely get, for to carry a gun and bayonets...we had our choice of going to the army or to jail.”

The feel of it
Great songwriting always requires an ability to express what the listener already feels. What Harrigan and Braham shared with their audience was an irreverent straightforwardness. The jokes here trade on crystal-clear observations, but they’re meant to elevate rather than denigrate their subjects – a refreshing change from so much modern comedy.

Mr. Moloney says it was hard to recreate these songs because the orchestral arrangements were destroyed in a fire in 1884, and virtually no recordings exist. Using bits and pieces of the Irish musical tradition, just as Harrigan and Braham did, Mr. Moloney and friends have brought these lyrics back to life and drawn a sharp picture of this long-gone era in Irish-American life. These songs may be too old for your Grandmother to remember, but don’t be surprised if you feel an urge to sing along.

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