Lisa O’Neill: Heard a Long Gone Song review – raw and unvarnished folk for austere times

River Lea/Rough Trade

Indie labels have given traditional music new life in the 21st century. Rough Trade’s charges the Strokes and the Libertines were grabbing NME column inches at the same time as it released records by Alasdair Roberts and the Decemberists. In recent years, it has signed Radio 2 folk award-winners Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, as well as Irish band Lankum, whose rawer, politically charged songs provide a bleak fit for our times. Now comes their similarly austere countrywoman Lisa O’Neill, the first signing to Rough Trade’s new dedicated folk subsidiary, River Lea.

Although she was softer once (check out her self-released 2009 debut, Has An Album), O’Neill’s vocals have increasingly returned to their County Cavan roots. Here, they are stripped raw, rough and calloused, evoking the old women anthologised a century ago by Harry Smith; a style that might distance some, or suggest affectation to others. But when it delivers these songs – an extraordinary collection of bleak, harsh originals blending into heartbreaking traditionals – they get you in the gut clean.

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