Musical Carousel | Irish America
By Tom Dunphy
It has been a good year for Irish pop music. There wasn’t a single blockbuster album in 1999 – U2’s new effort isn’t expected until early 2000 – but if you scratch the surface you’ll find some exciting music nonetheless. TOM DUNPHY recommends a few favorites you might want to investigate …
VAN MORRISON, BACK TO THE TOP
Van Morrison Back to top could not be better named. Van the Man solidifies his place as one of the best soul singers – blue eyed or not – walking the earth today on this beautiful album. Back on Top offers shimmering, vintage rock and soul that is as golden as a late fall day. “Goin ‘Down Geneva”, a twelve bar blues marked by barrel piano playing, sees Morrison lamenting life on the road. “Going down to Geneva, give me a hand / It’s not easy baby, living in exile”, he sings. “Remind me of you”, with its swells of Hammond organ church, is a crush in the best tradition of Sam Cooke. The “Precious Time” syncope nods to the peace process: “It doesn’t matter which God you pray to / Precious Time passes,” sings Morrison. Brian Kennedy adds flawless vocal harmonies throughout. Back on Top is the vintage Van Morrison – an intensely personal brand of soulful stew from Belfast that nourishes and delights.
THE FRANK AND WALTERS, BEAUTY BECOMES MORE THAN LIFE
Cork natives The Frank and Walters are creating a surprisingly original brand of dramatic pop music on many levels. Brothers Paul and Niall Linehan (bass / vocals and guitar, respectively) and their childhood friend Ashley Keating (drums) create intricately textured songs that sway and sway with sonic tension. Their latest album, Beauty becomes more than life, is a thing of beauty itself. These guys have to live in the studio to experience sound – it’s not a sound the Franks won’t use in their sound arsenal. From a fat, trippy bassline in “7:30”, to a very distorted lead vocals on “Last Time We Said Goodnight”, to a cheerful wah-wah pedal on “Something Happened to Me” – The Frank and Walters scream sonorous colors like a painting by Jackson Pollock. Paul Linehan’s fiery words and his almost crackling voice are sincere, but never sickening. The songs are full of hope without being rosy; grandiose without being grandiose; simple without being simplistic. Beauty Becomes More Than Life is the first pop masterpiece of the new millennium.
ASH, NU-CLEAR SONS
Ash from Northern Ireland looks set to make a splash in America. Nu-Clear Sounds is a collection of twelve muscular songs that are reminiscent of not only Nirvana and the Sex Pistols, but also the Beach Boys and Gary Glitter. Garbage guitarist / producer Butch Vig remixed and remixed several songs for the album’s US release. And is it still impactful. Lead Ash man Tim Wheeler has a knack for writing a great punk anthem. “Jesus Says”, with his down-laden guitars, arrogantly complains of being stuck in a hotel room “a million miles from home.” “Death Trip 21”, inspired by the story of a Colombian drug lord who died in a botched illegal plastic surgery operation, is thorny and heartbreaking. But there is also a grimy beauty to songs like “Wild Surf” and “Folk Song”. “A Life Less Ordinary” is probably the heaviest song written for an artistic muse. Already rock veterans despite barely in their twenties, the members of Ash have produced a post-punk document that could very well classify them as Nevermind of Nirvana. A group to follow.
BLACK 47, LIVE IN NEW YORK
Black 47 ′ s Living in New York looks a lot like a B47 concert itself – sweaty, boozy, loud and fun. Familiar Live songs take on a new energy heard in the live – the manic call-and-answer interaction between Larry Kirwan and the crowd on “Forty Shades of Blue” and “Maria’s Wedding” reveals just how much the connection is strong between this group and their fans. Black 47 spoke to an invisible part of the population – the illegal Irish immigrant, the nanny, the nurse, the construction worker who cashes his check at the local bar. Songs like “Funky Ceili” and “Walk All the Days” evoke their collective plight with humor, affection, insight and, most importantly, beautiful melodies. And “Fanatic Heart,” the story of a man who cannot escape his memories of torture and loss in the North, is both frightening and moving. Galvanized by a decade of concerts and tours, Live in New York City finds Black 47 excitedly looking forward to its next decade.
DIFFERENT ARTISTS, ACROSS THE HOPE BRIDGE
On August 15 last year, 29 people were killed when a bomb planted by a Republican breakout group exploded on the main shopping street of Omagh, County Tyrone. Record producer Ross Graham was brought in to put together a musical response to the tragedy. Across the bridge of hope – which unfortunately takes its name from a poem by a 12-year-old boy killed in the explosion – is a musical call for peace in Northern Ireland by some of the biggest names in Irish popular music.
U2 contributes to the longing “Please”, Van Morrison sings an acoustic version of “The Healing Game”, and Paul Brady’s anti-war “The Island” takes on added resonance. Ash, The Corrs, Enya, Juliet Turner and The Divine Comedy also weigh on beautiful pieces. Sinéad O’Connor adds a nice cover of ABBA’s “Chiquitita”. Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Cure at Troy”, recited by actor Liam Neeson, asks us to “hope for a big change / on the other side of revenge”. Through their participation, the artists gathered for Across the Bridge of Hope echo this sentiment with deep respect.
EILEEN IVERS, CROSSING THE BRIDGE
Eileen Ivers was already well known to mainstream and pop audiences due to her work with Cherish the Ladies, Green Fields of America, Eo, and Paddy-A-Go-Go. But she comes out for the first time on Cross the bridge, and the results are breathtaking. Ivers is a woman with varied influences and tastes, and these influences show through on this beautiful album. “Jama” marries the song of a South African township to a singing Celtic melody, “Islanders” has an infectious Caribbean flavor, “Whiskey and Sangria” revel in some of the flamenco influences of Riverdance and the jazzy / hip influence -hop “Crossing the Bridge” “reveals Ivers’ fondness for his Bronx roots. But that doesn’t mean that she has strayed from traditional Irish music – you’ll be hard pressed to find the violin more exciting than the “Crowley’s / Jackson’s” medley, or a more beautiful tune than “Dear Irish Boy”.
AFRO CELT SOUND SYSTEM, OUTPUT: VOLUME 2
Like Ivers, the Afro Celt Sound System also taps into the rhythmic vein of the world – but they add drum-n-bass and techno influences to give the rhythm near-trance-like proportions. Released: Tome 2 is remarkable for its groove width. James MeNally (Pogues, Marxman) has brought together a group of world-class musicians, producers and programmers who see their mandate as breaking down musical walls. “Lovers of Light” absolutely cooks, like a techno-groove leads to a bubbling uilleann pipe. “Big Cat” offers an exciting musical duel between the master of the speaking drum Moussa Sissokho and the virtuoso of the kora N’Faly Kouyate. And the highlight of the album is “Release”, with the voice of Sinéad O’Connor. It is a tribute to Jo Bruce, the Afro Celtic keyboardist who died before the creation of this album.
The vocal interaction between O’Connor and Afro-Celtic singer Iarla O’Lionárd is haunting. An exciting and truly original album.
RORY GALLAGHER, BBC SESSIONS
It has been four years since Rory Gallagher died of complications from a liver transplant; he would have been 50 this year. But his legacy lives on, thanks to a series of posthumous recordings that shed new light on the genius of the axman of Cork. BBC Sessions is the latest. Taken from over 10 hours of live recordings recorded between 1971 and 1986, the tracks are split equally between concert recordings and studio sessions performed for BBC radio broadcasts. BBC Showtimes contains live versions of “I Take What l Want” and “Country Mile” and old blues chestnuts like “Got My Mojo Working” and “When My Baby She Left Me”. Thankfully, the Rory Gallagher estate has been careful to honor his talent by releasing only quality posthumous albums – unlike the flood of bootlegs and half-finished recordings that hit the market after Jimi Hendrix’s death. BBC Sessions is yet to be released in the US – you’ll need to look for this one in the import racks. ♦