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James Olin Oden's greatest strength is that he expands on Irish and Scottish conventions, particularly for those listeners who have a hard time distinguishing a reel from a strathspey or an air.

James Olin Oden's The Craic Is Free 

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The word craic derives from Middle English, from which it borrows pronunciation but not spelling. With some slight changes in connotation along the way, the popular Irish term essentially translates as merriment.

After just one listen to James Olin Oden's second full-length, The Craic Is Free, the word seems to fit the album in both origin and atmosphere. The Raleigh-based singer-songwriter, formerly of Irish Wolfhounds, is rooted in traditional Celtic styles, though the influence of American roots music gives his tunes a fresh feeling.

Oden's greatest strength is that he can expand on Irish and Scottish conventions, particularly for those listeners who have a hard time distinguishing a reel from a strathspey or an air. Though only a handful of the album's 16 tracks are traditional tunes, Oden—who plays guitar, tin whistle, bones, antlers and bodhrán on the record—liberally borrows themes from ancient instrumentals and lyrics from drinking songs.

While Oden often uses the Celtic songbook for inspiration—like his variation on "Irish Washer Woman" or the segments of "Sidhe Beag Sidgh Mhór" played in "Bring on the Night"—they're well-integrated and rarely in a way that's overly familiar or obvious. Instead of serving as a crutch, these influences help show that Oden is no slouch at writing original material. "It Couldn't Have Been the Whiskey," the title track and even his take on the traditional "The Flip Flop Song/Mrs. McLeod's" are imbued with a sense of mirth, particularly during their rousing choruses, which "Whiskey" takes partially from the Gaelic tune "Bimid ag Ól." His own instrumentals and solemn ballads prove Oden is just as capable of conjuring the pastoral green hills of the British Isles as he is at bringing the craic from Ireland to the Triangle.

Label: self-released

This article appeared in print with the headline "Treks and trials."

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