Following her 2015 debut album ‘The King Has Two Horse’s Ears’, Eithne Ní Chatháin AKA Inni-K toured extensively, playing with musical kindred spirits such as Liam Ó Maonlaí and more distant ones like jazz drummer Jeff Ballard, before hunkering down over the winter of 2018 to record ‘The Hare And The Line’ in a farmhouse in Co. Wicklow.
‘The Hare And The Line’ is a more complex and lyrically deeper album than ‘The King Has Two Horse’s Ears’, informed by experiences of love and bereavement (on Just After) and birth (on the charming Dewdrop).
But it is definitely a more sombre affair, there’s nothing so straightforwardly poppy as her debut’s standout tracks, Gentle Star and Come With Me. Most of the songs here are downbeat in tempo and tone, with recollections of childhood passions on Crush, the closest thing to the upbeat numbers on her previous album – cast in a minor key.
Once again Inni-K used Fundit to support recording costs and that spirit of independence finds musical expression in the album’s title track. The hare running “free and wild” is both an image of Inni-K finding her own path, and a deep connection to the natural world that’s celebrated throughout the album.
These are songs that delight in small things – in raindrops on the window pain in Anaesthetic, in the way the familiar moon is a comfort in a strange city in The Moon My Friend – Inni-K bringing a poet’s sensitivity to her observation of scene and mood.
The instrumentation is similar to that of her debut – piano, clean electric guitar, upright bass, plucked fiddle – and is rendered straightforwardly, with little syncopation or dynamic variation. This unshowy playing perfectly foregrounds Inni-K’s pure, vibratoless vocal lines, adding sparse dabs of colour without distracting from her sometimes disarmingly personal lyrics.
On Just After, which deals with her father’s death, that spare backing powerfully reinforces the directness of the song, Brian Walsh’s drumming pulsing through its verses like a heartbeat, seeming both to propel and hold back the song’s movement in a way that conveys the arrested quality of grief.
But though this style of playing can work, it can also feel workmanlike, and that fact illustrates the main challenge of ‘The Hare And The Line’. Over 10 tracks, its subdued palette feels increasingly restrained, leaving one wishing for more touches like Cormac O’Brien’s jazzy high-register bass playing on the title track, or the splashes of brass on Edges, or even Inni-K’s own piano playing on What’s In The Bag, Love.
Here she abandons the minimal style used on the rest of the album, playing more freely with an ascending chord sequence that underlines the message of hope sketched in the lyrics, switching her voice deftly between breathy lower registers and soaring higher ones.
Inni-K is an accomplished and expressive sean-nós singer, and that tradition supplies the folkish melismas that illuminate many of the vocal lines here. But where simplicity in traditional music is a route to authenticity, to a deep connection with the collective memory that folk music draws on, in a music that focuses on personal rather than collective experience it can hamper expression.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the album’s most adventurous tracks are those sung in Irish. On Póirste Béil, Ní Chatháin’s effortless, swinging vocals begin with a backing of stuttering, murmuring percussion and woodwind, which over 3 minutes gradually coalesces into rhythm and harmony, making it seem as though her increasingly animated singing is making the music take flight. In a different vein, the album’s long closing track, Ón Radharc is Sia, sets her words adrift in a haze of reverb and echoing guitars, recalling the singing of no less than Liz Fraser.
Inni-K opens ‘The Hare And The Line’ singing of not wanting to tick boxes, of “know[ing]…how to follow the melody of the air”. After an album of promising but ultimately orderly and well behaved songs, one wishes that she’d allowed more of that uninhibited melody through to support her highly personal lyrics.
The album demands and rewards repeated listening, but it also leaves one wanting more of the spirit of independence she promised when opening it.