In popular opinion, the ukulele has certain connotations of gimmickry and tweeness that keep it from being as well used in folk music as its cousins the banjo or the mandolin. While ‘Witch Bottle’ by Peter Delaney doesn’t completely escape this curse, the album does manage repeatedly to transcend the limitations of its instrument of choice.
The sounds on the album are certainly not those of what we may traditionally associate with the ukulele, a smiling native Hawaiian strumming softly on a candle-lit beach while some colouredy-shirted tourists slow-dance in the moonlight. The music on ‘Witch Bottle’ does conjure images of a beach, but one on the west coast of Ireland on a grey drizzly morning, a lone musician quietly playing to himself beneath the rocks and looking off over the Atlantic. In Sleep, Nausea you can almost hear the waves in the intermittent silences.
The good and bad of the album come through in the first three songs. My Eyes Are Blessed is an upbeat song that steers completely away from that tourist-friendly luau stuff and suggests a song-writing talent that is revealed in full flourish on the properly great second track A Maudlin Luna’Ula. The latter song epitomises all the good things about the album, the two main things being accompanying instrumentation (here in the form of a cello) and lyrics that are not just typical love song lyrics but actually interesting, not to mention the fact that it is just musically brilliant.
In contrast the album’s third song, Closing The Fold is the best example of what is wrong with the ukulele. Peter sings in a kind of melancholy tone about an old friend or family member who is now estranged, over a riff that can only be described as sickly sweet. It feels a bit like walking down a street thinking seriously and regretfully about a lost friend while some annoying little clown is jumping around you pulling stupid faces. It gets old very quickly and it is the great calamity of the instrument because it is not a bad song at all, and if it was played on a guitar it would not have that awful quality.
The limitations of having a whole album of ukulele songs do arise from time to time, for example in the epic revenge song A Drab Remaking, a 7 minute 20 second song about women claiming revenge against the sexual aggression of men. While being a rare and insightful piece of storytelling, it isn’t until almost two-thirds into the song when a small bit of percussion and accordion come in that it goes beyond good to really attention-grabbing.
Lyrically it must be one of the most interesting Irish albums in a while. Between the words themselves and Peter’s singing voice it is the kind of album you will listen to again just to hear the what is being said. From A Maudlin Luna’Ula the lyrics “he’s always looking at you/he will steal you away/to his home up in the black sky” say so much about the singer’s feelings of jealousy and mistrust, and it takes the song beyond its simple musical brilliance. It is the same for the whole album and besides the bits of musical repetitiveness Peter Delaney has a real top notch record on his hands here.