Monday, 25 April 2011

Dancing girls and music clubs

The sound man is chewing his gum. He is sitting to the left of you. He is browsing the Internet, looking for a birthday present for his new girlfriend, or else is trying to shrug off his sleep. His control desk looks like an abandoned tomb. The sound quality is piss poor; you’re getting a feeling there are thousands of wasps playing detuned, distorted electric guitars. Ear-flogging. Then there are all these girls. The girls are ready to dance to anything, even to Mozart’s Requiem. The girls are having fun, you can’t blame them. The person sitting with you is shouting something into your ear, but he might as well be shouting filthy insults: you can’t hear him. You’re looking at the bass player; you’re afraid that if he moves to the left he might actually kick the vocalist off the stage. The vocalist who is already sitting on the cymbals, not allowing the drummer to show all he can. You think you’re going deaf, because the break-filling “Twist And Shout” by The Beatles sounds like a barely audible lullaby…

It might sound weird, but in a music club you admire the bad bands. The ones who can’t write a tune and come up with a half-new riff and make you hit a dancing girl because you can’t see the whole stage. You admire them. The good ones? Not so much, because however good they are, they are still quite bad. You are all right, boys, and your covers make sense, but sorry, I don’t have time for you – see you later when you are through with your apprentice job. 

But it’s the genuinely awful buggers who you admire. The ones who look like clueless victims of a wicked cut-and-paste game involving random copies of several music magazines. But their looks are still the last thing on your mind: in fact, the more preposterous they look, the better (total absurdity might bring some edge to the whole proceedings). So why the admiration? Well, the bassist is doing his job; the guitarist can play a muffled solo or a muffled riff as well as anyone under the circumstances; the drummer is ravishing his kit like there’s no tomorrow; the vocalist has half the microphone inside his mouth. They are clearly giving it all – I almost want to cry. They don’t have time for drugs, to say nothing about finding birthday presents for their girlfriends – they are forever stuck in their rock’n’roll basement jamming or composing or just blasting well-tested covers. I love them. Because they are no good but refuse to believe it. Because they still think some godsend manager is sitting in the darkest corner of the club looking for a band to sign. Because, as Martin Amis put it in London Fields, you never write for no one. There’s always somebody watching you: mother, God, Shakespeare, friend. 

So what are you expecting when the doors shut behind you and you enter the dim playground for those who want their music in the rawest form? A Tom Waits impersonation? A band ripping off The Zombies? Brit-pop revivalists? The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t really matter what you’re expecting. You are not going to get it anyway. There won’t be any subtlety, mercy, or clarinets ; amazingly, there won’t be any difference between Waits-worshippers and an Oasis tribute band. Music club sound is not for your ears: it’s a punch in your stomach, it’s a kick in your teeth. They’re all well-rehearsed Jackson Pollocks of modern rock, and there’s a big possibility they will all sound like fucking Evanescence. 

But music clubs are still worth it, and you’re always glad to be there. Waiting for a miracle, for a revelation, willing to take on the Devil himself. I know: they will come, they will make a brief soundcheck, they won’t say a word, they will play your new favourite song. And the sound man will choke on his gum, and his girlfriend will dump him. And those girls, what about them? Oh let them dance. I want them to keep dancing. Even to Mozart’s Requiem

After an eventful few hours in a music club, you walk home shattered, broken, wanting more – but definitely not now. Not today. Sometime in the future, maybe, when a Luke Haines will hit the stage to be cherished by all those next generations to come.

SONG OF THE WEEK #8: Timber Timbre - "Black Water"

Taylor Kirk, a contemporary Canadian singer-songwriter, specializes in dark, sparse, inventive folk music. Beautiful piano lines, thumping bass, poignant vocal melodies, slightly ominous atmosphere - in the world of derivative folkies Timber Timbre sounds unlike anyone else.

For me, Creep On Creepin' On is one of the most exciting records of 2011 so far. Three unnecessary instrumentals aside, I don't have a single gripe about this thing. And with songs like "Black Water" - it's hardly all that surprising..

Monday, 18 April 2011

Best Irish Albums: ONE

THE DIVINE COMEDY –Promenade (1994)

Best song: “Tonight We Fly”

My introduction to Neil Hannon’s music was through the hugely popular Casanova. But Casanova never really clicked with me – the songs sounded heavy-handed and didn’t have an edge, which made me wary of looking for other records by The Divine Comedy. But then I decided to have another go, and I’m so glad I did. It was the band’s absolutely charming, delicate, melodically brilliant second album, Promenade.

Promenade, perhaps even more so than Hannon’s other releases, sounds like a true work of art – suffice it to say that on the cover of the album Neil is shown in front of the Louvre. So the refined lushness of the music comes as no surprise: expressive strings, stirring and delicate piano lines, violins, lots of dramatic vocals… The mood is gentle, pensive, romantic. But it is not as if this baroque, elaborate form prevails over substance: the melodies are uniformly fabulous, be it the dreamy, melancholic, (almost) self-consciously literate “Booklovers”, the gorgeous, decadent “When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe”, or the riotous, overdramatic, hilarious beauty of “A Drinking Song”.  

Promenade does not sound like a simple collection of songs. It’s a journey, a promenade – call it what you will, but it does create its own world. There is no unifying theme here – although quite a lot of these songs seem to deal with water, this way or another. “Neptune’s Daughter”, “Bath”, “A Drinking Song”, a couple of others. But it is not as if you care about any kind of concept here – with songs being that great.

One brief, dramatic epic after another. And then the closing, breathtaking swirl of “Tonight We Fly” brings the whole thing to a halt, and you are left with the realization that you’ve just heard one of the most perfect pop records of all time.  

A true classic of chamber, baroque music. What can I say. If you do accept the world Hannon creates here, Promenade will become a truly special record for you. And, quite frankly, I don’t see why one wouldn’t be engulfed in this piece of luxurious, poetic, beguiling beaut.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #7: The Pogues - "If I Should Fall From Grace With God"

While I believe that "Fairytale Of New York" is The Pogues' greatest ever creation, I post the title track from the band's 1988 album (reviewed today) because for me this is their signature song. It doesn't really get better than this. Charismatic, sincere, unforgettable; Joe Strummer loved this one. And the video is stunning.

Best Irish Albums: TWO

THE POGUES – If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988)

Best song: “Fairytale Of New York”

The Pogues were of course not an Irish band... London, England. And even Shane MacGowan, that most Irish man on planet Earth, was born in Kent. And bands like Flogging Molly (Los Angeles) or, say, Dropkick Murphys (Massachusetts) weren’t even considered for this list (they wouldn’t have made it anyway). But: certain band members indeed came from Ireland and, most importantly, The Pogues were the world’s most genuinely Irish band ever. Point stated.

So what makes The Pogues and Shane MacGowan so impossibly Irish? The fact that they put Joyce on the cover of one of their LP’s? The fact that Shane was born to Irish parents? The fact that he, according to his own claims, hasn’t spent a day completely sober since 16 or something? The fact that they played lots of traditional Irish music? No. It’s the vibe, that passionate, spirited, authentic feel. It’s that rambunctious gentleness that Irish culture is so imbued with. They make you laugh and dance one moment, then they make you weep in wistful sorrow the next. This sincere, spontaneous artistic conflict within The Pogues is really what makes them proper Irish. And this is the thing that Richard Ellmann’s brilliant book Four Dubliners taught me.

When it comes to The Pogues’ best album, the band’s fans tend to take sides. It is either the slightly more celebrated Rum, Sodomy & The Lash or, indeed, If I Should Fall From Grace With God. As it is seen from my choice, I’d go for the latter.

For me If I Should Fall… is a more expansive, sharper collection of songs. It has its quieter, lovelier bits, and then it has its wild, punkish, pub-rock delights. As for the former, I would mention such ballads as “Lullaby Of London”, “Streets Of Sorrow”, and, of course, the breathtaking “Fairytale Of New York” featuring the great Kirsty MacColl. “Fairytale Of New York” is this album’s “Rainy Night In Soho”, only it’s perhaps even better. The lyrics are even more poignant, and the tune is even more inspirational. But the whole thing is definitely bigger on those rockier, more riotous thrills. The genius belter that is the title track, the dance-inducing “Turkish Song Of The Dead”, the hair-raising “Thousands Are Sailing”, etc. And they are not just interpreters, The Pogues: this is original, highly charismatic music. And the band even managed to slightly expand their palette: “Fiesta”, for instance, is certainly not Celtic punk. I can hear Spanish and (drum roll) Russian (??) motifs there. An absolute maddening song.

The sheer joy this album brings is hard to describe. It has it all: humour, bawdiness, elegance, drama, fun. It has everything I might ask from an Irish album. Hell, from any album. Memorable, rough masterpiece, and unquestionably one of Ireland’s best album.

Irishness? Well, what else is there?

RECOMMENDATIONS. Everything by The Pogues is a must. Yes, and even those two post-MacGowan albums that everybody seems to look down upon. After all, who wants to live his life without ever hearing the pop gem that is “Tuesday Morning”?..

Friday, 15 April 2011

Best Irish Albums: THREE

VAN MORRISON – Astral Weeks (1968)

Best song: “Madame George” (could be any other though)

That might seem a little too predictable (after all, Astral Weeks is almost a default critical choice for Ireland’s best album), but what can I do. This is truly a masterpiece of free, poetic self-expression, as nuanced and bold as the best Impressionistic paintings. I remember the person who gave me this record – 7 or 8 years ago – made a point of warning me: but Astral Weeks is a difficult album, very improvisational. Well, improvisational I can agree with. But difficult? I think it took me about 20 seconds to fall in love with that magnificent title song. Whereas the charms of Morrison’s more ‘accessible’ and ‘song-based’ follow-up, Moondance, still elude me.

Astral Weeks really does have a certain jazzy, mellow, slightly mystical feel to it. Songs are relatively free-form and lengthy (my favourite today, “Madame George”, lasts more than nine and a half minutes) – but they are never really meandering or substance-free. They are not there to tease and annoy you. These songs have meat in them, as well as those wonderfully loose, passionate vocals. Granted, there is not much variation going on throughout this album  but then that was never the point. While the instrumentation is quite elaborate (there are flutes, violins, lots of bass, brass, etc.) – Astral Weeks still gives an impression of being a very fragile, understated sort of record. A record that is sure to give you new sensations every time you care to put it on. Like my favourite albums by Kate Bush, Astral Weeks certainly feels like some kind of a journey into a poet’s heart. Or should I say art?

Astral Weeks is one of those very special records you don’t play too often – but then when you do  that (perhaps when you least expect it) you feel you are in for a special treat. Be it a cold evening in December or maybe a hot summer night – the record will keep you pleasantly transfixed whenever its gently floating textures touch you. Astral Weeks is for people with imagination. Certainly not for the chummy, digital generation that would rather listen to tracks than songs. 

Irishness. Van Morrison is of course from Northern Ireland… But I guess with their rich literary past Irish people must all have a poetic side to them. Or at least I've always wanted to believe in that.

RECOMMENDATIONS. None – though it pains me to be so categorical. Van Morrison’s other records have never managed to impress me. Often too watery, too vague melodically. But I’m one of those rare people (considering my age) who got into Morrison’s solo career after Them, his overlooked 60’s Belfast band. I love Them! Have you heard “You Just Can’t Win”? It’s astonishing! Rough, bluesy, intense – that band is certainly worthy of your time.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Best Irish Albums: FOUR

WHIPPING BOY – Heartworm (1995)

Best song: “Tripped” 

So you remember now 
What it takes to make a mother cry 
You stupid boy 
So you remember now 
What it takes to make a woman cry 
You silly boy 

Can you imagine lyrics like that actually working? To quote Grant McLennan, "not in a dream but in a song"? In a song by a rock band? Sounding serious, convincing, almost heart-wrenching – and not pathetic or overblown?.. Enter “Honeymoon Is Over” by Whipping Boy. 

Whipping Boy’s second album being so high on my list should not come as a big surprise. Heartworm is often considered one of Ireland’s finest releases, and for a good reason. It’s a deeply passionate, often dramatic record with affecting, evocative lyrics, memorable tunes (sung in a keen, brooding baritone), and beautifully intense instrumentation. 

In fact, at some points Heartworm gets so dramatic that some people can’t resist comparing the band to U2. Fools! Bono would rather stick to the brittle, saccharine mellowness of “One” than show some talent and guts and come up with a song as powerful as “When We Were Young”. 

This record is intoxicating. And so inescapably catchy and engaging that I’ll have a hard time believing there are people who won’t fall in love with Heartworm over the course of the very first listen. Okay, so initially one might consider the opening “Twinkle” merely lovely – but surely the lyrics as well as the mind-blowing chorus of “When We Were Young” will do the trick?! If not – then that is what they call an ear disorder. But they keep delivering, and next comes the album’s highest point, the inescapable “Tripped” whose second part must be one of pop music’s most powerful moments – the energy level is simply exhilarating. In fact, I don’t find a single non-classic song here – even the half-spoken/half-sung kitchen sink drama of “We Don’t Need Nobody Else” is a complete triumph. And, of course, my personal favourite, the elegantly orchestrated ballad “Morning Rise” that works brilliantly as the album’s closer. 

I’ve also heard people calling this shoegaze. No way. Well, yes, there’s some colourful noise going on here on occasion. But that is a melody-creating sort of noise, it’s not simply about the sound or stylistic presentation. Heartworm  is about substance. 

Irishness. While Heartworm is a ten-track album, it in fact contains no less than 11 songs. “A Natural”, a beautiful narrated piece, comes as a sort of afterthought several seconds after “Morning Rise”. Anyway, the song his this very Irish clarinet that is interwoven into that lovely, lovely tune. 

RECOMMENDATIONS. I should say that up to the very last moment I’d been deciding which album is better – Heartworm or their posthumous self-titled release (2000). In the end I went for the more cohesive (and celebrated) Heartworm, but Whipping Boy is not to be missed either. Oh, and they also had a debut album called Submarine (1992), but that one sounds weak, unconvincing, and uninspired. Good they took 3 those years to deliver their masterpiece. It has paid off - if not commercially, then at least critically.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Best Irish Albums: FIVE

CATHAL COUGHLAN – The Sky’s Awful Blue (2002)

Best song: “Amused As Hell” 

I’ve always had a feeling I should love Cathal Coughlan a lot more than I do. But bile, witty lyrics aside, neither the painfully plain Microdisney nor the shambolic and uninteresting Fatima Mansions managed to catch my attention. The melodies were bland, obvious, or they weren’t there at all. I was ready to give up, but then I just kept having this nagging feeling Cathal Coughlan did have something for me. Did he, then, does he? Well, as it turns out - yes, his solo career, and especially The Sky’s Awful Blue

This album, which is Cathal’s third solo release, is a decisively morbid affair. The cover and the title don’t lie. Full of chilling, sorrowful melodies; pessimistic, acerbic lyrics; that deep, Scott Walker-like croon; and bleakest atmosphere imaginable, The Sky’s Awful Blue is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Still, the thing won’t make you take your own life – simply because the thing’s so impossibly beautiful. Behind the outward coldness and misery there’s a lot of sad, narcotic charm to be found – in the gracefully arranged orchestration and particularly in those deep, haunting, magnetic tunes. 

Mentioning specific tracks would be pointless. Suffice it to say that The Sky’s Awful Blue is an extremely consistent record, stylistically and quality-wise. I’ve picked the slightly more upbeat (not lyrically!) “Amused As Hell” as my favourite, but that depends on a particular listen. A listen that should better be through headphones - in the evening gloom of a lonely apartment. Sometimes sparse, sometimes relatively lush (with lots of acoustic guitars, violins, melancholy piano lines), the album never really loses its dark, bitter, strangely addictive charm. 

Everyone should have this record in his/her collection. The man has a very compelling, intriguing vision of the world – whether you agree with that vision or not is immaterial. He is an artist, you know. 

Irishness. I could get away with a word ‘atmosphere’ here, but that would be too cheap a shot. I could mention the US version of the LP which ends with “Westlin’ Winds”, an old traditional ballad. But then that, of course, is a Scottish ballad, with words written by Robert Burns, so… I’m really at a loss here. Skip it. 

RECOMMENDATIONS. If you like this one, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t like some of his other solo releases. But I have a feeling that for many one record of this kind would seem quite enough.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #6: A House - "Endless Art"

The signature song taken from the Irish band's album I Am The Greatest (see today's review). The trick they pull here can only be pulled once. Only unlike John Cage's 'masterpiece', "Endless Art" manages to make sense. It's not just art - it's also memorable and tuneful. 

The first time I heard the song I thought they were joking. But they weren't. They were making a statement. A fairly obvious, painfully recognisable statement - but they were making it in a way you absolutely can't resist. See for yourself.

Best Irish Albums: SIX

A HOUSE – I Am The Greatest (1991)

Best song: “Endless Art” 

All those Irish albums I’ve reviewed so far were good, no doubt about that, but it is perhaps now that the real, filler-free, timeless classics enter. And what a better way to kick off this top 5 than with a brilliant art-pop statement by a brilliant band nobody knows about? 

Yes, A House is another obscurity on my list. I won’t pretend I know a lot about this band – in fact, I Am The Greatest (their most celebrated record – though the word ‘celebrated’ doesn’t sound too good here) is their only album I’ve heard in its entirety. And it’s fantastic. 

When you record an art-pop statement, your primary concern might be the ‘art’ bit. The ‘statement’ bit. The lyrics. And A House clearly wanted to get their snotty, “ars longa” ideas across – just check out songs like “I Don’t Care”, “Endless Art” or the title track. But even with lyrics so self-consciously clever and amusing – it just wouldn’t have worked without the craft they put into writing these tunes. The tunes they sometimes didn’t even bother to sing. “Endless Art”, for instance, is just the singer narrating, enumerating the names and years of life of eminent (and not so much) artists – everyone, really, from William Shakespeare to Sid Vicious to Van Gogh. Name-dropping of the highest order you might think? Well, yes, definitely, but the thing’s backed by a good, effective melody that will not make the song tiresome on second listen. In fact, I’ve heard I Am The Greatest about 5 or 6 times now, and it’s still the album's best track. 

But it’s not all about “look at us, we are different, artsy, and original”. They are as insecure as anyone. There’s a lovely, singalongish, and almost touching “I Am Afraid”; there’s an a capella love lament “When I First Saw You”; there’s a frustrated generation song “You’re Too Young”. Much of it is built around a simple but effective acoustic guitar rhythm, which makes the songs catchy and hugely entertaining. There are 15 songs all in all – and not a single one I could live without. Particularly since they cared to bring some diversity too: we have a darkish, gorgeous, slightly mystical ballad (“Blind Faith”); we have a novelty little pop ditty (“Victor”); we have an engaging mid-tempo punk song (“Live Life Dead Die”), etc. 

So if you have any further doubts about I Am The Greatest, just take another look at that tasteful album cover. They obviously knew what they were doing. 

Irishness. I would nominate the weeping, heartbreaking violin in “You’re Too Young”. Why not? 

RECOMMENDATIONS. I’m sure they recorded many other good things, but you certainly owe it to yourself to hear I Am The Greatest. Wherever you might find it.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Best Irish Albums: SEVEN

REVELINO – Revelino (1994)

Best song: “Happiness Is Mine” 

If a band formed by an ex-football player seems an unlikely and rather off-putting proposition, then you’ll have to think again. Because Revelino, a criminally unknown 90s band of a former Irish footballer Brendan Tallon, certainly knew how to write a good song. 

I can definitely see how Revelino’s debut album could be lost amid that hysterical British haze of mid-90s. After all, this is as non-groundbreaking as they could possibly get in 1994: a fairly conservative guitar-rock album. The fact that the record is a lot more subtle and melodically satisfying than, say, Definitely Maybe, could hardly bother anyone. Which is a shame. 

Musical references. Try imagining classic 60s music played in the post-Stone Roses world – the familiar 90s deal, really. So it all boils down to tunes. The record kicks off with the magnificent single “Happiness Is Mine” full of vocal melodies to kill for. While the song sets the bar quite high and nothing else comes close, Revelino is still an amazingly consistent album. Each song has at least one brilliant element to make it totally worthwhile. The fantastic riff of “I Feel Tired”, the gutsy guitar racket of “My Bones”, the sweeping chorus of “Taking Turns”, the addictive groove of “Slave”, the delicate violin of the lovely “She’s Got The Face”... And I haven’t even mentioned the gorgeous ballad “Don’t Lead Me Down”, unquestionably the album’s second best thing. 

I wouldn’t call it the perfect 90s guitar-rock record (that, of course, would be New Wave by The Auteurs), no, but it's most certainly among the more well-written ones. Totally undeserving of its ‘unjustly lost forever’ status. 

I won’t bother with Irishness this time. Particularly since they didn’t bother with it either. 

RECOMMENDATIONS. None, really. Tracking down this one is quite an achievement in itself.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Best Irish Albums: EIGHT

MY BLOODY VALENTINE – Isn’t Anything (1988)

Best song: “Lose My Breath” 

Mais oui, I’m one of those misguided souls who think Isn’t Anything is actually better than LovelessLoveless is all about the sound. Isn’t Anything, on the other hand, is about the songs. 

While I do like certain shoegaze records (Isn’t Anything and particularly Ride’s Nowhere being my absolute favourites), I can hardly be considered the genre’s greatest admirer. My main issue with shoegaze is that quite often (more often than not, in fact) the wall of noise (the sound of sonic bliss for some) conceals painfully weak tunes. 

Released in 1988 (My Bloody Valentine having abandoned their failed career in bad post-punk), Isn’t Anything is different. The more you listen to it, the more the record reveals its great care for melody. Take “Lose My Breath”, for instance. Behind the idiosyncratic sound of guitar distortion there is one of the loveliest vocal melodies you will ever hear. And it is all very lovely (lovely and difficult), all wallowing in that dreamy, addictive, sometimes ominous atmosphere that makes listening to this album a very special, singular experience. But it’s not all so gentle and tender (in fact, the album contains some very disturbing lyrical lines) - far from it; the band could rip it up, too. Like on the album's most celebrated song, “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, which is basically a remorseless, crude grunge song. While "You Never Should" is just a catchy alt-rock thing made special by that very distinctive sound of theirs. 

What else is there to say? That the vocals as well as the album’s cover are oh so lovely and twee? That Isn’t Anything is one of the most important, influential releases of its time? Irishness? Ah yes, Irishness. But I will go for something obscure this time. For I get a feeling that the songs here are as understated and (melodically) meaningful as those immaculate short stories in Joyce’s Dubliners. But if that seemed too obscure, you might consider the dreamy, moody, slightly fantastic atmosphere that inhabits Isn’t Anything. Could well be deemed Irish. 

RECOMMENDATIONS. Loveless is still a must, of course, but, truth be told, I could never bring myself to loving it. Liking, yes; admiring, certainly. But loving?.. No, I guess not.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Best Irish Albums: NINE

THE BOOMTOWN RATS – A Tonic For The Troops (1978)

Best song: “Rat Trap”

Quite frankly, A Tonic For The Troops is one of the greatest bad-taste records I know. A mess of an album. Yet a clear post-punk classic that sounds equally patchy, maddening, catchy, and intoxicating.

Bob Geldof’s Boomtown Rats are largely forgotten or, at best, severely underrated. And if someone somewhere still talks about the band, it’s all about “I Don’t Like Mondays”, The Boomtown Rats’ memorable, poignant chart-topping single about a 16-year-old Californian girl who shot 11 people in the street simply because Monday wasn’t her kind of day (true story, by the way). A classic, of course, but as it happens, there’s more to The Boomtown Rats than their biggest hit.

And I’m talking about their sole and undisputed masterpiece, A Tonic For The Troops. Interesting that the album was released in 1978, the year punk was still in full swing; interesting, because the record sounds as if punk was already a thing of the past. A Tonic For The Troops is the sound of glam-rock and rockabilly filtered through the spirit of 1977; add to this Bob Geldof’s rough, self-assured, playful vocals and witty, often tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and you pretty much get the picture.

The level of energy is astonishing; the hooks, both vocal and instrumental, just keep jumping at you out of nowhere. The hilarious “(I Never Loved) Eva Braun”, sung from the point of view of Adolf Hitler, is a riot. Of course, there’s something absolutely ridiculous, over the top about it, but those melodies are irresistible. The punky “She’s So Modern” is a concise energy rush. “Don’t Believe What You Read” is smart and catchy Brit-rock. And “Can’t Stop”? “(Watch Out For) Normal People”? Slovenly, hysterical, unforgettable. 

But the whole thing wouldn’t have been nearly as good as it is were it not for the last song, the overblown epic “Rat Trap”. It’s an existential anthem with terrific lyrics, driving onslaught of melodies and a sloppy sax-fuelled groove that concludes the record on a very becoming, wild note. A totally deserved No.1 hit. And now that it's playing in my head... 

“It’s a rat trap, Judy, and we’ve been… CAUGHT!..”

Jesus, a record like that. No subtlety anywhere in sight, but just mind-numbingly great. Should probably be even higher on my list.

Irishness? Hell no.

RECOMMENDATIONS: No one gets forgotten for nothing. The Boomtown Rats’ problem was the obvious lack of truly compelling LP's. Yes, they had quite an impressive run of UK hit singles, but I wouldn’t know what other albums to recommend. Try maybe The Fine Art Of Surfacing (1979; features “I Don’t Like Mondays”), it’s their second most consistent proposition. But I would suggest sticking to A Tonic For The Troops. For post-punk rarely got better.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #5: The Undertones - "When Saturday Comes"

If I, like John Peel, wanted an Undertones song at my funeral, I wouldn't go for "Teenage Kicks". I would rather choose "When Saturday Comes" off Positive Touch (see today's review). One of the most perfect guitar-rock songs I know. It has subtlety, it has a chorus to die for, and it has this amazing anthemic swagger that will make you sing along. 

Honestly, what's more to ask?..

Best Irish Albums: TEN

THE UNDERTONES – Positive Touch (1981)

Best song: “When Saturday Comes”

Pop-punk, when you don’t abuse its easy appeal, can be a good thing. And arguably no one could do it better (at least in the 70s/80s) than The Buzzcocks and, more importantly for us, Northern Ireland’s The Undertones. Whereas The Buzzcocks’ compilation Singles Going Steady! remains the ultimate genre-defining Classic, The Undertones’ self-titled debut from 1979 is perhaps the pop punk album you need.

Their more mature Positive Touch, though, was different. It does contain their landmark pop punk touches, but this is quite clearly a very 60s-flavoured record with tuneful psychedelia, British Invasion-styled pop, and garage-rock rave-ups. Melodic guitar lines (the jaunty “I Don’t Know” is pure brilliance) and clever vocal hooks – seriously, if good music is your kind of thing, this record could be for you. My favourite is the classic 60s guitar-pop nugget “When Saturday Comes”, but the album’s extremely even.

Some might have a problem with Feargal Sharkey’s raspy vocals (that sound not unlike Roger Chapman’s), but I personally find them different in a good, effective way. Overall, the band’s songwriting may not always be top-notch (“Hannah Doot”, for instance, is a little too obvious) and may seem somewhat derivative on occasion, but one can’t put down a good tune. And good, catchy tunes there are plenty.  

As for Irishness, there is none. Northern Irishness? Mmm maybe.

RECOMMENDATIONS. Well, I’ve already mentioned that acclaimed debut album, but their golden period also included the pre-Positive Touch album Hypnotized (1980; more of the same) and the more soulful Sin Of Pride (1983). For me, though, Positive Touch is their strongest, most filler-free proposition.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Best Irish Albums: ELEVEN

MARC CARROLL – Ten Of Swords (2003) 

Best song: “Crashpad Number”

The moment “Crashpad Number”, the first composition on Ten Of Swords, starts bursting through your speakers, you begin to wonder what is wrong with the world and why is it largely unaware of Marc Carroll. A chiming, anthemic pop-rock gem that sounds not unlike a classic Byrds song updated for modern times, it should have signified far greater things. 

I first heard the song (and, indeed, Marc Carroll) in 2003 thanks to a giveaway CD that came with Uncut (possibly the best music magazine there is). Weird then that it was only several years later that I finally heard the man’s debut album, Ten Of Swords. Thankfully, it was everything I'd expected it to be: full of wonderful harmonies, 12-string Rickenbacker, and, above all, fantastic tunes. 

The thing that struck me, though, was how eclectic this collection is. There are Dylan-esque folk ballads (“Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down”), fleshed-out rock outbursts (“Idiot World”), lovely lilting pop (“Silent And Blind”), etc. And it’s all done with great taste, by a man who can not only write and sing, but also play his guitar in an extremely gutsy, affecting way (check out that terrific guitar break in “Mrs Lullaby”, one of the album’s obvious highlights). 

Ten Of Swords isn’t perfect, but I’ve fallen in love with every song here (bar maybe the slightly draggy – if still pretty – “In Silence”). The album’s so intelligent, so well-written that I can only call it what I usually call it: radio-friendly pop for a better world. 

Irishness? Not much, really. But I swear to God the closing ballad “Terror And Tired Eyes” is literally drenched in this enchanting, slightly surreal atmosphere that I can only identify as Irish. 

RECOMMENDATIONS. Marc Carroll’s relatively short (so far) discography is well worth investigating: there’s All Wrongs Reversed (2003) that contains a couple of fantastic covers (Dylan’s “Gates Of Eden” is phenomenal) and a number of blistering originals (“Mr. Wilson”, Marc’s paean to Brian Wilson, is hardly worse than John Cale’s). And I would also suggest getting World On A Wire (2005), an introspective, more ballad-oriented record that yet again convinced me what a great and underappreciated singer-songwriter the man is.