Luka Bloom is a traveler, a nomad. It’s no accident the Irish singer/songwriter’s three albums have names inspired by geography or vehicles; they reflect the songs, which are linked by their sense of place and motion. Of course, Bloom has been a traveling kind of guy. Born Barry Moore — the younger brother of Irish folk legend Christy Moore — he recorded three albums in his homeland before moving, in 1986, to New York, where he forged a performing name from Suzanne Vega’s hit and the protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Although it contains a reflection on the suicide of Pablo Picasso’s second wife (“Gone to Pablo”), Riverside is mostly about an Irishman living in New York, gazing at the Statue of Liberty (“Hudson Lady”), looking for love or something approximating it (“An Irishman in Chinatown”) or simply surveying the landscape (“Dreams in America”). Despite numerous musicians — including Hothouse Flowers’ Liam Ò Maonlai and Iranian finger drummer Ali Fatemi — Bloom and producer Jeffrey Wood keep Riverside’s arrangements in check, going for a spare, open sound driven by his full-bodied, ringing acoustic guitar. This is one debut that has aged well.
Bloom returned to Ireland and made The Acoustic Motorbike, a far more frenetic and eclectic work, in Dublin. He carried New York back with him, though, in a cover of LL Cool J’s “I Need Love,” on which brother Christy plays the traditional bodhran in synch with a drum machine. “Bridge of Sorrow” also incorporates raps, while “Listen to the Hoofbeat” offers Bloom’s sympathetic views on the plight of Native Americans. He also covers Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The Acoustic Motorbike leans towards fuller, band-oriented instrumentation — Ed Tomney (ex-Necessaries/Rage to Live) plays a lot more electric guitar this time — but it’s unfocused, not entirely abandoning Riverside’s simple melodicism but not forwarding that album’s strengths, either.
Turf, then, seems like a retrenchment. Bloom’s coffeehouse album is just him, an acoustic guitar and Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh of the Irish band Altan harmonizing on “Sunny Sailor Boy,” a Mike Scott song Bloom has long performed in concert. Bloom and his co-producers, Paul Ashe-Browne and Brian Masterson, achieve a big, rich sound for such a simple presentation, putting some muscle behind his warm tenor and propulsive guitar work. The best songs — “Cold Comfort,” “Holding Back the River,” “The Fertile Rock,” “Background Noise” — are career highs, while Bloom’s assured performance very nearly rescues flimsier moments like “Freedom Song” and the doe-eyed “Black Is the Colour.”