Saturday, December 13, 2008

10 Classic Irish Albums

MY BLOODY VALENTINE - Loveless (1991)

Not just the greatest Irish album of all time: the greatest album of all time, period. In fact, not just the greatest album of all time: the greatest work of art created in the history of mankind. If you ever need a testament to the benefits of relentless perfectionism, look no further: as this masterpiece was created between 1989 and 1991, mainman and visionary Kevin Shields went through eighteen recording engineers and nineteen recording studios, allegedly almost bankrupting his label Creation Records in the process (according to who you believe; Shields strenuously denies this). At the end of it all, Creation label-head Alan McGee vowed never to work with Shields again. Yet the end result was a record of almost alien beauty.

MBV can be seen as part of a lineage of great bands – the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, The Jesus and Mary Chain - who revolutionised and redefined guitar music: Shields’ primary innovation was the use of a technique nicknamed ‘glide guitar’, a method of wavering the tremolo bar of the guitar while strumming. This led to a disorientating, hazy effect as the music slipped in and out of tune. The textured, layered sound of the album led many people to believe that the band were using multiple overdubs, when in Shields’ own words “it's actually got less guitar tracks than most people's demo tapes have.”

Loveless seems to simultaneously pulverise the listener with waves of distortion and envelop them in an abstract, dream-like haze. The sense of contrast is heightened by feminine, unintelligible vocals that glide in and out of focus along with the music. It’s rare to find an album that manages to sound so harsh and discordant and yet so soothing at the same time: while on the one hand the record was the cornerstone of some of the loudest live shows in music history, on the other hand tracks like ‘To Here Knows When’ and ‘Blown a Wish’ convey a sense of pure tranquillity and bliss.

Even with the greatest albums, there are often tracks you’re tempted to skip, weak links in otherwise flawless works; but there’s not a single track on Loveless that falls below perfection. The final third of the album in particular - running from the haunting drone of ‘Sometimes’ through the celestial one-two of ‘Blown a Wish’ and ‘What You Want’, and ending with the hypnotic rhythms of ‘Soon’ - is simply the most incredible passage of music ever recorded.

There’s never been a follow-up, but that’s no great mystery: how do you follow perfection?

Standout Tracks: Blown a Wish, What You Want, To Here Knows When

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WHIPPING BOY - Heartworm (1995)

In terms of going against the cultural grain, Heartworm takes some beating. The year was 1995: Britpop was in full swing with all its attendant caricatures and satire; and while Blur and Oasis were going head-to-head at the top of the charts with songs about country houses and rolling with it, the Dublin four-piece released this brutal, uncompromising transmission from the heart of darkness.

An ominous, mournful violin intro sets the tone as opening track ‘Twinkle’ disguises it’s dark subject matter (‘turning tricks just like your mother’)with a seemingly clich├ęd chorus (‘She’s the only one for me / Now and always’), coming across like a cousin of R.E.M.’s classic anti-love song ‘The One I Love’. Influences like The Cure and Joy Division abound, with Ferghal McKee’s bleak delivery backdropped by violent, churning guitar and occasional stately strings. The subject matter is almost relentlessly dark, dealing with broken relationships and mental turmoil, even touching on domestic abuse on the controversial ‘We Don’t Need Nobody Else’. However, there are some shards of light breaking through the gloom: ‘Personality’ is a perfectly timed mid-album injection of serenity, while the bittersweet ‘When We Were Young’ gave them an unlikely radio hit.

Standout Tracks: Twinkle, We Don’t Need Nobody Else, When We Were Young

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GEMMA HAYES - Night On My Side (2002)

She may have lost her way in recent times, with her music increasingly characterised by bland alt-country arrangements; but debut album Night On My Side marked Gemma Hayes out as a special talent, one that called to mind influences as diverse as My Bloody Valentine, PJ Harvey and Lisa Germano. It’s a captivating record whose strength lies not just in its individual songs but in the impressionistic spell cast by its melancholic atmosphere, discordant guitars and Hayes’ delicate, yearning vocals.

The Tipperary native possesses an extraordinary voice that couldn’t fail to impress if she was singing the contents of a phone book, and the music here ranges from the bleary Americana of ‘Day One’ (as gorgeously understated an opening track as you’re likely to hear anywhere) to the anguished drone of ‘Tear In My Side’ and the churning guitar rhythms of ‘Hanging Around’. The aching minimalism of ‘What a Day’ and the still incredible-sounding ‘Back Of My Hand’ (has there been a better Irish single released in the last 10 years?) epitomise the edge that she’s been struggling to recapture ever since.

Standout Tracks: Back Of My Hand, What a Day, Day One

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ASH - Free All Angels (2001)

When Ash followed up their wildly successful debut 1977 with the dreary dirges and second-rate Stooges imitations of Nu-Clear Sounds, many feared that the young Downpatrick band had burned out too soon. Main songwriter Tim Wheeler went to ground for a while as he tried to get back in touch with his inner mojo, and the band brought it all back home by deciding to write and record in the same garage where they had made their first steps.

The result was the triumphant Free All Angels, which recaptured the wide-eyed punk-pop vibe (see the bittersweet summertime homage of ‘Walking Barefoot’ or the irrepressible‘Burn Baby Burn’) that first marked them out, while adding a vital dose of maturity (the sublime ‘Sometimes’ perfectly captures the sadness of a break-up with minimum self-pity) and world-weariness (the Spectoresque ‘Someday’) along with some pleasing curveballs (‘Candy’ samples The Walker Brothers to superb effect). ‘Shining Light’ landed Wheeler an Ivor Novello award, and was later covered by Canadian artist Emm Gryner, who threw the song’s classic pop melody into even sharper relief. The album went straight in at number 1, dislodging Janet Jackson: it prompted drummer Rick McMurray to ring her record label and leave his own version of Outkast’s ‘I’m sorry Miss Jackson’ on their answering machine. Good times.

Standout Tracks: Sometimes, Candy, Burn Baby Burn

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ROLLERSKATE SKINNY - Horsedrawn Wishes (1996)

One of the great lost Irish bands, Rollerskate Skinny emerged in the early 90’s with records that garnered much critical acclaim, and though they packed it in after their second album, Horsedrawn Wishes, they still retain a considerable cult following. Their music is an invigorating, hazy, shape-shifting blend of distorted, MBV-like guitar textures (Kevin Shields’ brother Jimi was a drummer in the band for a period), gliding shoegaze washes, power-pop harmonies and melodies that call to mind the Stone Roses.

‘Swingboat Yawning’ and ‘One Thousand Couples’ utilise quiet-loud dynamics with pulverising, warped guitar assaults; ‘Cradle Burns’ is a joyously disorientating pop song, while all the ingredients come to a glorious climax on ‘Speed To My Side’, surely one of the greatest Irish singles ever recorded. They really don’t make them like this anymore: I’ve often said that no one will ever be able to recapture the magic of MBV’s Loveless, but Rollerskate Skinny came pretty damn close.

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U2 - The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

This writer will always have a soft spot for U2’s fourth studio album, as it was arguably the last record they released before they became the bombastic entity they are now, for better or worse. Not that it’s necessarily an understated record: the opening two tracks, ‘A Sort Of Homecoming’ and ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’, see Bono at his chest-beating best and their music at its most yearning. The former, in particular, remains one of the most underrated songs in their repertoire.

Elsewhere, though, there’s some of the most experimental, ambient music the band have released, obviously informed by collaborator Brian Eno: on ‘Elvis Presley and America’, Bono turns in a restrained, hypnotic vocal performance over a backdrop of warm, chiming atmospherics; in a similar vein, closing track ‘MLK’ is essentially a lullaby, a gentle drone framing the singer’s exhortation to ‘Sleep / Sleep tonight / And may your dreams be realised’. Then there’s the windswept, almost mystical soundscape of the title track; while live favourite ‘Bad’ takes its cue from Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ and creates something similarly transcendental but completely unique. Then there’s tracks like ‘Wire’ and ‘Indian Summer Sky’, which showed that The Edge was still taking plenty of guitar lessons from post-punk acts like Gang Of Four.

You can keep your Joshua Tree, this is the one I’m taking to the metaphorical desert island.

Standout Tracks: Elvis Presley and America, A Sort of Homecoming, Bad

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THE FRAMES - Set List (2003)

The Frames tend to divide opinion between the loyalists who flock to their shows and the critics who feel that they should force themselves out of their crusty, folky comfort zone and write more songs like ‘Revelate’ (guess what side I’m on); but there’s one thing that most people will agree on: Set List is a terrific and life-affirming live album that sees the band at the peak of their powers. Recorded in November 2002, it documents a triumphant set in front of an adoring crowd at Dublin's Vicar Street.

A true people’s band if ever there was one, the set is punctuated by anecdotes such as the infamous ‘dog that never moved except to chase that one car’ story, while crowd reaction is high in the mix – a vital ingredient, and one that many live albums lack. But this is no mere cabaret: the music is scintillating and stirring throughout, taking in a grinding, furious ‘Revelate’, the punk-pop rush of ‘Pavement Song’, the lullaby-like ‘Star Star’ and a spine-tingling rendition of ‘What Happens When The Heart Just Stops’. Practically every take here pisses all over its equivalent studio version, and when the mournful, sinister-sounding ‘Fitzcarraldo’ reaches its gut-wrenching climax, you’re left wondering just why Glen Hansard seems content these days to play the role of the glorified busker.

Standout Tracks: Revelate, What Happens When The Heart Just Stops, Fitzcarraldo

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Not strictly an album, but I couldn’t leave the Leesiders out, and seeing that 2006’s A Renewed Interest In Happiness is the only studio album I own and is fairly so-so, we’re gonna go with this. The Franks first came to prominence in the early 90’s with their colourful, zany indie-pop; at the height of their popularity they reached number 11 in the UK charts with ‘After All’ and were supported by Suede and Radiohead. They were soon left behind by the mainstream as Britpop came along and wooed the masses, but this excellent collection shows that their gift for a contagious melody stayed with them even when they became more of a cult concern.

Songs like ‘Colours’, ‘Fashion Crisis Hits New York’ and ‘After All’ combine infectious hooks with that peculiarly early-90’s jangly guitar sound, while Paul Linehan’s eccentric delivery (or is that just the Cork accent?) and frequently oddball lyrics also play their part in the distinctive Frank and Walters sound. Yet they also have a melancholy streak running through much of their work, such as the graceful, elegiac ‘New York’ or the superb ‘Daisy Chain’.

This compilation is a testament to the art of great pop music, although I do have a couple of minor quibbles: there’s no inclusion for the classic ‘Michael’, a song that beat Franz Ferdinand at their own game before they even existed; or their cover of The Smiths’ ‘Cemetry Gates', which taps hidden reserves of melancholy. What’s that? The Frank and Walters making a Smiths song more melancholic? Yes, you heard me right.

Standout Tracks: Colours, Fashion Crisis Hits New York, Daisy Chain

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THE POGUES - If I Should Fall From Grace With God
When the late, great Joe Strummer joined The Pogues as a temporary touring vocalist in the wake of 1991's sacking of Shane MacGowan, it was a tacit acknowledgement that the Pogues were worthy of being regarded as indirect descendants of punk forebears like The Clash. MacGowan and co. saw the link between the physicality, energy and political potency of traditional Irish music and the similar characteristics of punk music; the result was a compelling, invigorating fusion of styles that arguably reached its peak on their third album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God.

The opening one-two of the title track and ‘Turkish Song Of The Damned’ (which adds Eastern European influences to the brew) is as thrilling a start to an album as you’ll hear from any punk act, with MacGowan echoing Strummer’s unhinged cries and yelps in his own inimitable style. It’s not all loud and fast though: rubbing shoulders with the rowdy, raucous likes of ‘Fiesta’ and ‘Bottle of Smoke’ are tracks like ‘Streets Of Sorrow / Birmingham Six’ and ‘Thousands Are Sailing’, which don’t shy away from controversial topics, but treat their subjects with empathy and pathos. And then of course there’s ‘Fairytale Of New York’, which despite being rammed down our throats every holiday season is still absolutely magnificent.

Standout Tracks: If I Should Fall From Grace With God, Turkish Song Of The Damned, Fairytale Of New York

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DAMIEN DEMPSEY - Seize The Day (2003)

Bookended by two songs that sound like extracts from a self-help book, this is the kind of album that could fail spectacularly, but it doesn’t: Dempsey’s positive, anti-cynical stance is perfectly measured, helped by the fact that he doesn’t shy away from dark topics like heroin addiction (‘Ghosts of Overdoses’), street violence (‘Factories’) and institutional abuse (‘Industrial School’). His distinctive Donaghmede accent and singing style isn’t to everyone’s taste; but to these ears it’s a formidable instrument in itself, bringing a much-needed novel angle to a singer-songwriting genre that was already becoming overpopulated when this album was released.

While his more politicised, topical songs tend to suffer sometimes from lyrics that are unsubtle and even a little trite, it’s the more personal, philosophical ones where Dempsey really comes into his own - such as the sublime ‘It’s All Good’ (which features terrific backing vocals from Sinead O’ Connor) and the reggae-tinged ‘Negative Vibes’. There’s also evidence of a quirky sense of humour on ‘Jar Song’, which imagines drinking sessions with a list of Irish literary figures, while ‘Apple Of My Eye’ is an enchanting tribute to New York as the safe haven to many an Irish emigrant. You could draw all kind of inferences from such a song appealing to a demographic who were becoming increasingly intolerant of other cultures, but that’s beside the point: this was an album that disarmed any cynicism and exhorted you to ‘love yourself today’. Good advice.

Standout Tracks: Apple Of My Eye, It’s All Good, Negative Vibes