Corey Purcell – Undaunted: Album Review

An accomplished, potent and refreshing mix of familiar songs and frantic dance tunes from Pennsylvanian Celt, Corey Purcell.

Release Date:  1st June 2023

Label: Self Release

Formats: CD / Digital

A resident of Allentown, Pennsylvania, Corey Purcell has been a student and practitioner of Irish culture for just about as long as he can remember.  Indeed, he’s dedicated a goodly proportion of his life to the expression and communication of Irish dance and music; he’s an award-winning Irish step dancer who has competed at both national and international level and he’s an accomplished multi-instrumentalist – a talent that is demonstrated thoroughly and spectacularly by his prowess on cittern, bodhran and, particularly, button accordion right the way across his debut solo album, Undaunted.

Corey is a busy guy.  Alongside his dancing exploits and the months of effort that has gone into turning Undaunted into the triumph that it, so assuredly, is, he’s also a sometime member of Irish-American trio Poor Man’s Gambit and he’s also one half, alongside squeezebox buddy Rob Curto, of accordion duo The Free Reeds.

In Corey’s own words, Undaunted has been “…years in the making.”  The project began to take on a recognizable shape during the COVID lockdown.  Corey took the opportunity presented by the enforced cessation of musical and body-shaping activity to retreat to a friend’s cabin, way up in the Californian hills, to put together the material for his album.  Freed from distraction, he made remarkable progress – “…before I knew it, I had laid down the majority of the twelve tracks on the album,” he happily and proudly reported.

Undaunted is a charming mix of material.  There’s six songs and six instrumental pieces, four of which are Corey’s own compositions.  And the album is a satisfying blend of the new and the familiar – anyone with anything more than a passing interest in, or knowledge of Irish traditional music will know several, if not all, of the songs presented here – and, whenever Corey chooses an old standard, he adds his own, special, vocal and instrumental twist to breathe new life into an old friend.

Accomplished multi-instrumentalist that he is, Corey plays most of the music on Undaunted, but he’s happy to give credit where it is most certainly due, to the “…crew of great artists that have really taken the music beyond what I could ever have expected.”  And that “crew” includes accordion buddy Rob Curto, Colin Farrell who plays some wonderful whistle, Deirdre Lockman, whose fiddle adds a softening edge to Corey’s accordion whenever such a softening is required, Connor Purcell – who chips in with flute – and Guitarists Alan Murray and Clint Dye.

The first thing that hit me, as I spun the opening track, The Banks Of Sweet Dundee, is the rich, soothing quality of Corey’s voice.  There’s no attempt at assuming an ersatz Irish accent, yet the Celtic roots of Corey’s music are never in doubt, even for a second.  The tune builds solidly and gradually as Colin’s whistle and Corey’s bodhran join Corey’s cittern in the fray, and Undaunted is off to a very pleasant start.

Corey and Rob get to grips with their respective accordions for the wistful, enjoyable May Waltz, before the pace picks up – not half – for the hell-for-leather set, Polkas.  Corey really shows us what he can do on that squeezebox of his, whilst the guitars keep up a determined pace.  I can imagine that if it hasn’t already done so, Polkas will become a staple feature of Corey’s live shows, but – a warning here – only those of Olympic standard fitness should attempt to polka along…

Stuffed with nostalgic, evocative images of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the Zuider Zee, The Dutchman is a real delight.  Corey plays cittern and accordion, Deirdre’s fiddle is divine and the vocal harmonies are exquisite, but, perhaps, It’s Corey’s vocal delivery that truly steals the show… 

Inspired by hummingbird visitors to Corey’s mountain retreat, The Hummingbird is a lovely tune, made even better by Deirdre’s fiddle lines that provide a sympathetic counterpoint to Corey’s jaunty accordion.  Lovers of the work of Paul Brady will certainly recognize Lakes of Pontchartrain, and Corey’s version here is reasonably faithful to Paul’s Welcome Here Kind Stranger interpretation.  Corey’s vocal is, once again, top-notch and Colin’s whistle completes the picture.

Starting life as a slow, ponderous, accordion piece, Winter’s March develops a mellow, warming theme.  The winter’s thaw sets in as Corey’s cittern makes its appearance and green shoots appear through the snowy covering as the bodhran adds a simmering beat then, best of all, the seething heat of Deirdre’s violin adds the warmth of a blazing fire.  It’s a satisfying slow-builder of a tune.

The spirit of Paul Brady makes another appearance with Arthur MacBride, another song that will be known to many listeners.  It is, of course, a wonderful song, and, here, Corey does it full justice – his accordion adds a special ‘something,’ his vocal is probably his best on the album and the light, rolling, drums when the drummer boy of the story makes his appearance are a nice touch, too.

Despite its title, the instrumental Paris Nights has, to my jaded ears at least, more of an Eastern European or an Iberian feel to it than anything Parisian.  Nonetheless, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable accordion and guitar jaunt and a pleasant diversion away from the Celtic-inspired material that otherwise dominates Undaunted.  But it’s a very short diversion and Jock Stuart takes us back to familiar Irish territory.  And this version of the old favourite – the song has been covered by The Pogues, The Dubliners and The Tannahill Weavers, to name just a few – is arguably the best of the bunch.  Corey’s interpretation is restrained and highly melodic, and the harmonies on the “So be easy and free…” refrain are glorious.

Corey plays some amazing accordion on Undaunted but he truly excels on Undaunted Jigs, a set of tunes that do exactly what it says on the tin.  The rhythm – on guitar and bodhran – is exactly right and the tunes gallop along.

It’s yet another familiar song that brings this excellent collection to its close.  The World Turned Upside Down is a protest song from the 1640s – and it still has tremendous relevance today – that has been performed by a plethora of polemics, including Leon Rosselson and Billy Bragg.  And Corey Purcell’s version is, I’m pleased to be able to announce, right up there alongside the best of them.

Undaunted is a wonderful album; a successful blend of the new and the traditional, of the instrumental and the vocal and of the novel and the familiar.  If you have any liking for Irish music – contemporary or traditional – you will, I suspect, love Undaunted.

Listen to Jock Stuart – one of several familiar songs given a new twist on Undaunted – here:

Corey Purcell: Website / Facebook / Instagram / YouTube

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