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HARVEST MINISTERS (Buy CDs by this artist)
Little Dark Mansion (UK Sarah) 1993 (Widely Distributed) 1994
A Feeling Mission (Setanta / Bar/None) 1995

The gentleness of acoustic music gives it a certain emotional harmony with twinky pop, which partly explains how this folky Dublin sextet wound up first on England's Sarah and then on two different American indie-pop labels. Sidestepping preciousness and sublimating Gaelic influences in favor of an eloquently pure lyricism that's more Neil Young than Van Morrison, the group led by singer/songwriter/guitarist William Merriman is faceless in the best possible way: the handsome music is the star, not the diversely arranged performances or the retiring individual personalities. That brings it in line with Amerindie's country minimalists (Palace, Scud Mountain Boys) on one hand and pop pastoralists like Speed the Plough on the other. As a bonus, the Harvest Ministers serve as a reminder why travesties like the Waterboys really had no business hanging about Ireland.

That said, the warmhearted, occasionally wry Little Dark Mansion is a little too plain — underwhelming, even — but there are bright flashes amid the careful musicianship. "Fictitious Christmas" is lively, thanks to Aingeala de Burca's fiddling and Gerardette Bailey's singing; the piano-driven "Railroaded" has the elegiac majesty of Shane MacGowan at his sentimental best and a vocal performance that recalls Ian Hunter singing "Ballad of Mott the Hoople." (The US edition adds three tracks from pre-LP UK singles, including the ironically ebullient "If It Kills Me and It Will.")

A Feeling Mission is the real deal, a snappy, assured and organic record with starch in the songs and fresh roses stuck smartly in their lapels. Cycling comfortably through rustic quaintness, atmospheric chamber pop and mild jazz-lite swing, the revised lineup (introducing fair-voiced singer Maeve Roche and giving more play to multi-instrumentalist Padraig McCaul) makes fine handiwork of Merriman's oddly canted compositions, especially "That Won't Wash," "Cleaning Out the Store," "The Only Seat of Power," "An Inopportune Girl" and "Modernising the New You." Singular in both word and sound, A Feeling Mission is exquisite and substantial. Fans of Aztec Camera, Go-Betweens, Everything but the Girl and the Jayhawks may find this album very much to their taste.

[Ira Robbins]