It’s been a good year for Irish pop music. There hasn’t been one big ticket album in 1999–the new U2 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 may want to investigate…
VAN MORRISON, BACK ON TOP
Van Morrison’s Back on Top couldn’t be more aptly named. Van the Man solidifies his place as one of the top soul singers — blue-eyed or not — walking the earth today on this fine album. Back on Top delivers shimmering, vintage-sounding rock and soul that’s as golden as a late autumn day. “Goin’ Down Geneva,” a twelve-bar blues marked by some barrelhouse piano playing, sees Morrison lamenting life on the road. “Goin’ down Geneva, give me a helpin’ hand/It’s not easy baby, living on the exile plan,” he sings. “Reminds Me of You,” with its Hammond organ church swells, is a heart-tugger in the best Sam Cooke tradition. The syncopated “Precious Time” nods to the peace process: “It doesn’t matter to which God you pray/Precious time is slipping away,” sings Morrison. Brian Kennedy adds flawless vocal harmonies throughout. Back on Top is vintage Van Morrison — an intensely personal brand of Belfast soul stew that nourishes and delights.
THE FRANK AND WALTERS, BEAUTY BECOMES MORE THAN LIFE
Cork natives The Frank and Walters create an astonishingly original brand of multi-layered, dramatic pop music. Brothers Paul and Niall Linehan (bass/vocals and guitar, respectively) and childhood friend Ashley Keating (drums) create texturally complex songs that swerve and sway with sonic tension. Their latest album, Beauty Becomes More Than Life, is a thing of beauty itself. These guys must live in the studio experimenting with sounds — them isn’t a tone The Franks won’t use in their sonic arsenal. From a greasy, trip-hoppy bassline in “7:30,” to a wildly distorted lead vocal on “Last Time We Said Goodnight,” to a chirpy wah-wah pedal on “Something Happened to Me” — The Frank and Walters hurl sonic colors around like a Jackson Pollock painting. Paul Linehan’s yearning lyrics and nearly-cracking vocals are heartfelt, yet never cloying. The songs are hopeful without being dewy; grand without being grandiose; simple without being simplistic. Beauty Becomes More Than Life is the new millennium’s first pop masterpiece.
ASH, NU-CLEAR SOUNDS
Northern Ireland’s Ash seems poised to make a big splash in America. Nu-Clear Sounds is a collection of twelve muscular songs that nods to not only Nirvana and the Sex Pistols, but to the likes of the Beach Boys and Gary Glitter as well. Garbage guitarist/producer Butch Vig has remixed and punched up several songs for the album’s American release. And is it ever punchy. Lead Ash man Tim Wheeler has a knack for writing a great punk anthem. “Jesus Says,” with its fuzzladen guitars, snottily complains about being stuck in a hotel room “a million miles from home.” “Death Trip 21,” inspired by the story of a Colombian drug baron who died during a botched illegal plastic surgery operation, is spiky and harrowing. But there’s also grimy beauty on songs like “Wild Surf” and “Folk Song.” “A Life Less Ordinary” is probably the heaviest song written to an artistic muse. Already rock veterans though just in their early twenties, the members of Ash have produced a post-punk document that may very well rank up them with Nirvana’s Nevermind. A band to watch.
BLACK 47, LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY
Black 47′ s Live in New York City is much like a B47 gig itself — sweaty, boozy, raucous, and fun. The familiar songs on Live take on a new energy heard in the live setting — manic call-and-response interplay between Larry Kirwan and the crowd on “Forty Shades of Blue” and “Maria’s Wedding” reveals just how strong the bond is between this band and their fans. Black 47 spoke to an invisible section of the population — the illegal Irish immigrant, the nanny, the nurse, the construction worker who cashes his check in the local bar. Songs like “Funky Ceili” and “Walk All the Days” evoke their collective plight with humor, with affection, with insight, and most importantly, with great melodies. And “Fanatic Heart,” the tale of a man who can’t escape his memories of torture and loss in the North, is both chilling and moving. Galvanized by a decade of gigging and touring, Live in New York City finds Black 47 looking forward to their next decade with gusto.
VARIOUS ARTISTS, ACROSS THE BRIDGE OF HOPE
On August 15th of last year, 29 people were killed when a bomb planted by a republican splinter group exploded on the main shopping street in Omagh, County Tyrone. Record producer Ross Graham was moved to assemble a musical response to the tragedy. Across the Bridge of Hope — which sadly takes its name from a poem by a 12-year-old boy killed in the blast — is a musical call for peace in Northern Ireland by some of the biggest names in Irish popular music.
U2 contributes the yearning “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 in with fine tracks. Sinéad O’Connor adds a lovely cover version of ABBA’s “Chiquitita.” Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Cure at Troy,” recited by actor Liam Neeson, asks us to “hope for a great sea change/on the far side of revenge.” By their participation, the artists assembled for Across the Bridge of Hope echo that sentiment with deep respect.
EILEEN IVERS, CROSSING THE BRIDGE
Eileen Ivers was already well known to both traditional and pop audiences by virtue of her work with Cherish the Ladies, Green Fields of America, Eo, and Paddy-A-Go-Go. But she steps out front for the first time on Crossing the Bridge, and the results are breathtaking. Ivers is a woman of varied influences and tastes, and those influences shine through on this fine album. “Jama” weds South African township singing to a lilting Celtic melody, “Islanders” has an infectious Caribbean flavor, “Whiskey and Sangria” revels in some of the flamenco influences of Riverdance, and the jazzy/hip-hop influenced “Crossing the Bridge” reveals Ivers’ fondness for her Bronx roots. But that’s not to say she’s distanced herself from traditional Irish music -you’ll be hard-pressed to find fiddling more exciting than the “Crowley’s/Jackson’s” medley, or a more beautiful air than “Dear Irish Boy.”
AFRO CELT SOUND SYSTEM, RELEASE: VOLUME 2
Like Ivers, the Afro Celt Sound System also mines the world beat vein — but they add drum-n-bass and techno influences to pump up the beat to trance-like proportions. Release: Volume 2 is remarkable in its breadth of groove. James MeNally (Pogues, Marxman) has assembled a world-class group of musicians, producers and programmers who see it as their mandate to tear down musical walls. “Lovers of Light” absolutely cooks, as a techno-groove drives a bubbling uilleann pipe. “Big Cat” features an exciting musical duel between talking drum master Moussa Sissokho and kora virtuoso N’Faly Kouyate. And the high point of the album is “Release,” featuring vocals by Sinéad O’Connor. It’s a tribute to Jo Bruce, the Afro Celts’ keyboard player who died before the creation of this album.
The vocal interplay between O’Connor and Afro Celt singer Iarla O’Lionárd is haunting. An exciting and truly original album.
RORY GALLAGHER, BBC SESSIONS
It’s been four years since Rory Gallagher died of complications following a liver transplant; he would have turned 50 this year. But his legacy lives on, thanks to a series of posthumous recordings that shine a new light on the Cork axeman’s genius. BBC Sessions is the latest. Culled from over 10 hours of live recordings recorded between 1971 and ’86, the tracks are divided equally between concert recordings, and studio sessions done for BBC radio shows. BBC Sessions 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, Rory Gallagher’s estate has taken care to honor his talent by releasing only quality posthumous albums — unlike the flood of bootlegs and half-finished recordings that came to market following Jimi Hendrix’s death. BBC Sessions hasn’t been released in the States yet — you’ll have to search the import racks for this one. ♦