It’s been a while since Mary Dillon was a regular on the folk scene - her group Déanta, in which she sang with her younger sister Cara, went their separate ways in 1997. Since then, Mary has occasionally contributed backing vocals to friends’ projects, concentrating otherwise on raising a family.
For many, then, Mary’s first solo album, North, will be the first they hear of her. They might not be surprised to learn that her voice is very similar to her sister’s - clean, pure and with that irresistible Derry lilt.
She uses it to great effect on a wide-ranging selection of songs, from cheery opener When a Man’s in Love - “a comedy, rather than a love song”, she says - to the poignant Irish lament, Ard Tí Chuain, which closes the album.
In between, there is a selection of steadily arranged traditional and more recent material. A sprightly Banks of Claudy and a tense version of The Month of January show Dillon to be a playful, passionate interpreter, but the solitary self-composed song - The Boatman - holds the album’s key. It gracefully mourns a lost seafarer, and directly reflects the album’s sleeve art; a photograph of Niall Bruton’s powerful ’Waiting on Shore’ statue.
Indeed, North regularly revisits tragic, solemn themes, and Dillon’s delivery suits the record’s slower, more soulful tracks. Ballyronan Maid is a gem, with backing vocals from Cara and subtle-but-sophisticated guitar from Eamon McElholm. Edward on Lough Erne Shore is a stately, sparsely accompanied centrepiece, while Dillon’s rendition of the tragic tale of boy solider John Condon - released as a Remembrance Day single - is another jaw-dropping highlight.
It may have been a long time coming, but with North, Mary Dillon proves she’s more than capable of holding her own as a solo artist. A beautifully judged, thoughtfully sung debut - hopefully we won’t have to wait 15 years for a follow-up.Mark Dishman
Released 28 January 2013 on Back Lane Records
1. When a Man’s in Love
2. Ballyronan Maid
3. The Boatman
4. The Banks of Claudy
5. Edward on Lough Erne Shore
6. Bleacher Boy
7. John Condon
9. The Month of January
10. Ard Tí Chuain