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The Finest Girl in Prague
Black 47: Green Suede Shoes
Black 47's debut (or their major-label, full-length debut, anyway), Fire of Freedom, is my pick for the definitive rock evocation of the experience of being an Irish expatriate in New York City. Whether you needed a definitive rock album on this subject or not is your own decision, but I found its whirlwind of drunken mishaps, Celtic reels, cartoon-rap self-promotion, clattering drum machines, Irish history, New York street scenes, dialog samples, big-band reggae, sordid desperation, unhinged love affairs, galloping celebration-pop and breathtaking loneliness exerted an irresistible magnetism, drawing me into the lives portrayed, which is something that only the very best art can effect. Mind you, it does take a leap of faith to believe that an album with goofy songs like "Maria's Wedding", "Rockin' the Bronx" and "Funky Ceili", made by a band that features some Dexy's Midnight Runners survivors in fact as well as in spirit, is also worth taking seriously, but I recommend the effort.
A year later, Black 47 put out their next album, Home of the Brave. This one was also about being Irish in New York. Probably fewer of you need two such albums than needed one. If you can stand another, though, I thought this one was also excellent, highlighted for me by the classic love-triangle "Black Rose", "Danny Boy"'s odd ethnic perspective on AIDS, and the scathingly unambiguous Brits-out-of-Ireland anthem "Time to Go". Green Suede Shoes is the band's new album, and it, too, is about being Irish in New York. I think, in fact, at this point we can safely assume that all of Black 47's albums, and their enthusiasm for making them shows no signs of flagging, will be chiefly about being Irish in New York. It makes as little sense to criticize them for this reason as it does to dismiss Gaudy Night on the grounds that it's "another mystery novel", and although it's true that the book is a mystery, and this album is another immigrant epic told in Black 47's inimitable polyglot cant, neither of those things tells you much useful about the work in question.
The principal trick that, over an album's length, keeps Black 47 from sounding like a formula band is that they employ several formulas, which cover the emotional spectrum from novelty-song throwaway to political martyrdom. At the "Come On Eileen" end of this span are the obvious singles, for which "Funky Ceili" was the prototype, the instances here being the rollicking banjo/culture-shock/green-card/seduction fable "Czechoslovakia" and the belligerent leprechaun mosh "Five Points", on both of which Larry Kirwan's plaintive voice caroms through tangled wordplay and breathless detail like a cross between Shane MacGowan and Matthew from News Radio possessed by the spirit of Loreena McKennitt. Closely related to these are the diary entries in the life of the band, which began with "Rockin' the Bronx" and "New York, NY 10009" on Fire of Freedom, continued in "Different Drummer" and "Time to Go" on Home of the Brave, and here take up again with "Green Suede Shoes" (electric and acoustic versions of which bookend the album), which careens from financial woes to a van crash, home crowds large enough to bring out the riot police and snarling clans of umbrage-taking Brooklynites.
Things get only slightly more serious on the band's reggae numbers, successors to "Fire of Freedom" itself, slinky, brass-heavy songs that play more like slow-burn Payola$ than UB40, much less anything more authentic. The core elements of "Change Come Slowly"/"Winds of Change" cleave doggedly to its inexorable pace, but around them instruments cartwheel in delirious flourishes that sound more like hyperactive prodigies orbiting a free-form marching band than like Jamaican beach jammers. "Brooklyn Girls" adds some ominous spaghetti-western guitar, and "Walk All the Days" slows the syncopation down to a jerky crawl that makes the vaguely dub-like vocals sound almost as much like Richard Jobson as Yellowman. The ethnic flip-sides are the overtly Celtic songs, which range from the deadpan instrumental "Gerty's Farewell" and Mary Martello's angelic Gaelic (?) guest-vocals on the atmospheric "Mo Bhron", to the electro-traditional folk-lament "Sam Hall", to the Irish-activist history "Bobby Sands MP" and the oddly involved "Vinegar Hill", a power-of-the-people anthem complicated by Kirwan's insistence on telling the story from the point of a view of a narrator who doesn't like the hero.
After the acoustic-Bowie of "Rory", which I can't usefully categorize, things start to get a bit more dramatic. "My Love Is in New York", a mid-tempo Vietnam/lost-love/drugs-as-escape-from-pain memoir, isn't actually about New York, but it invokes the city with an implicit reverence more usually associated with Irish countryside or Scottish highlands. This reversal is explored in detail in the raspy half-finale, "Forty Deuce", which wraps Byrdsy jangle, Hunters & Collectors throb, Pogues growl, Dylanesque adventure, gangsta-rap viscera and unrepentant recidivism into a song in which a city street takes on the mythic dimensions of an ancestral homeland.
The magical thing about Black 47 records for me, though, is not the qualities the songs have when you isolate and analyze them, but the ones they take on when they're in each other's company. Ardent patriotism spreads from the serious songs into the sing-along travelogues, and makes self-aggrandization seem more like confession. Cynical distance seeps back out of the joke songs and lends the serious ones credibility and perspective. Geographies begin to merge, Belfast becoming New York becoming Prague, Brooklyn street tension echoing IRA stand-offs and Vietnam combat trauma, a hill in war retaining the aura of hills fathers walked, hills of lovers' trysts, hills from which you look out across oceans, until the cords connecting places and people draw at each other so insistently that the gulfs of water and origin close, and being Irish in New York is no more anomalous than being alive at all. Yes, on the surface this is a record with tightly circumscribed social scope, but the quality of its attention to its own environs is such that for me its microscopic gaze inverts, and inside its ostensibly claustrophobic worlds it finds the immensity of human experience. And if, after this contact, some of the variety of the universe pours back in through the rent created, and exacerbates the band's erratic style, then I believe that a certain amount of chaos is an inherent component of anything that aspires to touch truth.
Wolfstone: The Half Tail
If you'd rather not have your Celtic-rock crossover heritage mixed quite so haphazardly with culturally extraneous ingredients, if perhaps you've never quite forgiven Big Country and Runrig for, each in turn, abandoning the stirring alloy of bagpipe fervor and rock drama that they both were instrumental in forging, then you should know that the banner those bands once flew has been handed on to fellow Scots Wolfstone, and there it may finally come to rest. Green Linnet's terse "File Under: Celtic/Rock" on the back cover is meant, for once, in perfect seriousness. If Big Country's Celticism was rarely more than a cast of melody, and Runrig's quickly became a foundation upon which they built new and elaborate monuments, then Wolfstone, abetted here by longtime Runrig producer Chris Harley, is the one band of the three to treat rock as a spice for flavoring folk music, rather than vice versa, translating the original material into the performance language of rock, but without stripping it of its original identity or cadence.
The Half Tail begins gradually, the introductory instrumental "Zeto" slowly gathering itself out of the mist, electric guitar and drums emerging from the shadows to be joined before long by the flurry of pipes and fiddle. Once everybody is warmed up and accounted for they segue smoothly into "Tall Ships", in which rumbling bass, cascading drum tattoos and thick washes of electric guitar well up around Ivan Drever's tribute to lost arts. Pipes return for the slow, atmospheric opening to "Gillies", another instrumental, in which drum and cymbal detonations lead to another all-hands power-reel, spelled for a bit by an eloquently mournful bridge, that ends up sprinting at full speed into a abrupt brick-wall stop. "Heart and Soul", on the other side of the wall, is probably the album's most straightforward rock song, choppy harmonica dueling with the pipes and fiddle as ensemble chorus harmonies remind me strongly of Runrig. Again, though, Wolfstone is careful to keep control of the album's pace, and so they follow "Heart and Soul" with the unmistakably traditional "Granny Hogg's Enormous Wallet", half piano and synth-fill and half another dervish's reel, before returning to rock instrumentation for a collage of the traditional texts "Bonnie Ship the Diamond" and "The Last Leviathan". They then manage to get through an entire instrumental, the elegant "Glenglass", without breaking into frenzied piping, only to compensate immediately thereafter with the cyclone bagpipe blur of "Clueless". And the album then concludes with an expansive band rendition of "No Tie Ups", a stirring, empathic fishermen's anthem, originally done by Drever and keyboardist Struan Eaglesham on their 1994 duo album Back to Back.
Due to the preponderance of instrumentals and the paucity of arena bluster in even the rock songs, this is probably not the Wolfstone album to ferry intractably provincial rock fans across on; both Year of the Dog and The Chase have a more rock-friendly balance of material, and the rock songs on those albums indulge in more familiar tropes. For folk fans moving in the other direction, though, or existing Wolfstone fans hoping for a return to the spirit of Unleashed, The Half Tail is probably nearly ideal. It is possible, I suppose, to maintain that traditional Celtic dance music no more needed rock updating than Vermeer paintings need to be redone in 3D, and I'm always leery whenever I find a purist side and discover I'm not on it, but I'm afraid the impact of too many kick drum thumps to my aesthetic cortex have left me unable to listen to anybody like the Tannahil Weavers without straining at the conviction that at any moment the music is going to finally kick in and move me. I know, intellectually, that I could meet it on its own ground, but I don't want to. I don't want to collaborate on the experience, I want to be rocked. Wolfstone complies.
Billy Bragg: William Bloke
My faith in music has rarely been stronger than it was in the fall of 1985, when the defining soundtrack to my first semester at college was the ragged guitar blare of Billy Bragg's seven-song debut EP, Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy. In retrospect, I guess New Wave was already on its way out, and Bragg foreshadowed many of the minimalist, folk and punk cross-pollinations that would infuse the transitions from Berlin to Tori Amos, Ultravox to Nirvana, the Call to the Smashing Pumpkins. At the time, though, I hadn't even begun to dye my hair yet (the radiant orange mohawk didn't happen until my junior year), and I was still frowning with mystified disapproval at any album that didn't list synthesizers by model number in the instrument credits, so Bragg's stark diatribes, bristling with thickly accented vitriol and a lascivious disregard for the more arcane points of tuning, were bizarre and amazing to me. Punk, for all its DIY posturing, was almost invariably an ensemble affair that attempted to overcome technical deficiencies with sheer volume, and so it was a revelation to me (and one which those of you who have heard my own tapes might wish I'd been less impressed by) that a single person with a single guitar and no particular musical talent in evidence could make plausible rock music.
I'd have been quite content for Bragg to keep making albums just like Life's a Riot and Brewing Up With Billy Bragg for the rest of his and my natural lives, but by his third record, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, he was ready to expand his palette. It's abjectly petty to begrudge someone personal growth, but Talking With the Taxman About Poetry made me very sad. It has a few truly classic Bragg moments, particularly the litany of class complaints in "Ideology" and his scornful braying of the "I hope I die before I get old"-ish proclamation "Marriage is when we admit our parents were right", and what to me is perhaps his most moving, "Levi Stubbs' Tears", a song about the about the sustaining energy of music that makes "Magic Power" taste like children's aspirin, but the five songs I like are offset by five that bore me, and two ("Honey, I'm a Big Boy Now" and "Wishing the Days Away") that I actively despise, in which Bragg ventures into musical territory that I, personally, would have reserved for strip mining or penal colonies. Workers Playtime was an improvement on this count at least, as none of it makes me actively unhappy, but for all its poise, sophistication and maturity, it strikes me as an album regrettably content to substitute mood where there ought to have been personality. Bragg's defiance is caramelizing into wistfulness, and this feels to me acutely like betrayal. Yes, there's still "Rotting on Remand", possibly the best pop song in advocacy of speedy trials since the sixth amendment to the US Constitution was a current event, and there's that great part in "The Short Answer" when the woman suggests that a bit of vacuuming might mend a rift not amenable to poetry, but I can't help feeling that "Tender Comrade" undermines "Like Soldiers Do", that the beagled devotion of "The Price I Pay" is a traitor to the fierce dreams of "A New England", and that where "To Have and To Have Not" drew a line in the sand, "The Great Leap Forward" is the diary of having gone meekly over to the other side. Still, all this pales in the face of Bragg's next record, the 1990 EP The Internationale, about which I cannot muster a single charitable analogy. If you ever doubted that earnestness could be ghastly, this is the disc to convince you. The inclusion of "Blake's Jerusalem", the song you have to sing to get Mr. Lambert to take the bag off his head after somebody says "mattress", is only the most overt detail that makes this EP seem like a dolefully humorless Muzak rendering of a Monty Python album.
And then, just when it looked like Bragg and I were going to part ways for good, 1991 saw two albums that won me over all anew. The Peel Session Album, a blistering 19-track collection of solo BBC performances, rekindled all the passionate feelings Bragg ever inspired in me, his energized performances even redeeming some later-period songs whose virtues I wouldn't previously have attested to. Don't Try This at Home, the year's new studio album, is as far to the maximal extreme as Peel Sessions is stripped down, but somehow this time Bragg crosses some important threshold, and instead of sounding to me like directionless overproduction, this album left me speechless. Swarming with big, brassy pop songs, haunting laments, trenchant replies and soaring melancholy, Don't Try This at Home manages to marry a musical confidence that makes Life's a Riot sound like another man's history to lyrical venom and social observation that reminds me quite inspiringly of some of my favorite Jam albums. Exquisitely balanced, this record neither compromises on sentiment to make songs flow more easily, nor attempts to bull its way through strident pedantry with brute sincerity. 1991 will be remembered, publicly, for other things, but in my own version of history this is starting to look like an album fit for representing a decade, not just a year. Which brings us, auspiciously, and after an extended break in which to have a personal life, to Billy Bragg's new album, William Bloke. I was prepared for anything. Five years is a long time in which to change your mind about things, so I wouldn't have been terribly surprised to find that Bragg had taken up the gamelan, turned to Vaudeville, learned a new accent, or enlisted Crazy Horse to turn him into a strutting rock titan.
As it turns out, five years didn't change him at all. In fact, my guess would be that he spent much more of it reviewing and assessing the life he's already led than considering alternatives, and as a result, William Bloke reads more than a little like a survey course of Bragg's whole career. Musically, the slow "From Red to Blue" and the slashing "A Pict Song" revisit his battered-guitar youth. The opening chords of "From Red to Blue" are a particularly stunning blast of nostalgia for me, though on inspection I realize that this is mostly because they sound so much like the beginning of "The Milkman of Human Kindness" does if you put the vinyl version of Life's a Riot on at the wrong speed, which I did unfailingly. "A Pict Song" would have been faster in 1985, too, and there's a little subtle guitar multi-tracking that Wiggy would have had to be dragged in for, but otherwise it could be straight off of either of the first two albums. There's something very satisfying about songs you can play air guitar to and think, while doing it, "Actually, I probably could play this song". (Admittedly this feeling is less novel if you're not as hapless a guitar player as I am.) "Northern Industrial Song"'s guitar is a little too quiet to really qualify for his early period, but the nasal vocals and forced rhymes are perfect. Moving into the later period, "Everybody Loves You Babe" is a shaded afternoon in the company of Cara Tivey's piano, Bragg's voice dropping into a warm hush like he's trying to turn a show tune into a lullaby. "Brickbat" and "The Space Race Is Over" swell with quiet drama. And the bouncy "Upfield" is the natural pop successor to "Sexuality". Unfortunately, spanning Bragg's stylistic continuum means also revisiting some chapters that I'm not personally so fond of. "The Fourteenth of February" sounds to me like an excerpt from a Bing Crosby Christmas special, the sleazy horn-reggae shuffle of "Goalhanger" doesn't move me to dance, the plodding mock-country of "King James Version" strikes me as expendable, and the falsetto soul of "Sugardaddy" I place out past "expendable" towards where the continuum starts to look suspiciously like a gangplank. After the coherence of Don't Try This at Home, this jumble of inclinations is disappointing, but I suppose that's why CD players are programmable, and I'd rather have half a good album than nothing. I think.
This consolation is complicated, however, by the lyrics. These, too, gather up most of the virtues and flaws Bragg ever exhibited. "Upfield" and "Goalhanger" have the football metaphors. "From Red to Blue", "Upfield" and "Northern Industrial Town" roil with class allusions and working-lad detail. "The Space Race Is Over" invests science and history with genuine personal significance. On the other hand, "From Red to Blue" is another of those songs that feel like it was supposed to be angry but Bragg was just too weary for it. "Brickbat" is sappy and uninspired. "Everybody Loves You Babe" is like a bedraggled remnant exhumed from the dumpster behind the Beautiful South's house. "Northern Industrial Town" paints its setting with all the flair of Fodor's, "A Pict Song" is Kipling, and "Upfield"'s refrain of "socialism of the heart" feels like a PR consultant's suggestion about how to reconcile middle-age conservatism with the nomenclature of youthful ideals. "King James Version"'s opening line, "He was trapped in a haircut he no longer believed in", may be the most inane thing Bragg has ever written, but it must joust for this honor with the whole of "Sugardaddy", a stupefyingly idiotic song for which Bragg either neglected to provide a point, or else concealed it more cleverly than I have the patience to decode.
And so, sadly, once I skip over both the songs I don't care for musically and the ones I can't conscion lyrically, I don't end up with much. "Upfield", "A Pict Song" and "The Space Race Is Over", that's about it. They're very good songs, those three, but I wish there were more. Perhaps for you there will be. If it's going to be another decade before the next Billy Bragg album I like, it'll take more than this to fill the time.
The Frames DC: Fitzcarraldo
Growing up in Dallas, one of my most cherished high-school-era routines was going to see movies at the Granada theater, a seedy repertory cinema with the ambiance of a Gormenghast library and a parking lot strewn with potholes large enough to swallow small cars and the tow trucks sent to extricate them. A perfect evening at the Granada involved five key elements. First of all, the Granada showed double-features, of which our ideal was anything and The Road Warrior. Second, it was best to arrive as close to show time as possible, so that it felt necessary to run at top speed from the parking lot through the narrow shortcut pedestrian passageway that connected it back to the street, and around the corner to the theater's front door. Third, the tickets always came to something-fifty, and they gave out fifty-cent pieces as change; we suspected this of being the only remaining point of distribution for fifty-cent pieces in the entire US economy. Fourth was the grating, odious pro-refreshments trailer they always ran, with its lilting, unbearable theme song, "Let's All Go to the Lobby" (covered to devastating effect by the band my friends had). And fifth, no trip to the Granada was complete without seeing, before at least one of the evening's two films, the trailer to Fitzcarraldo. To this day I've never seen the whole film, but the preview is one of the most riveting cinematic fragments in my experience. It features a madman on a boat blaring scratchy opera records at quizzical natives at forest-defoliating volumes and a scene where his steamship is dragged up and over an enormous African waterfall, which they simulated for filming by the ingenious trick of actually dragging a steamship up and over an enormous African waterfall.
Fitzcarraldo, the album by the Irish band The Frames (the DC tacked on the end reeks of lawyers; the other album of theirs I have, 1992's Another Love Song, has no DCs on it, and seems no worse for the omission), is of a much more human scale than the film trailer. The Frames sound a little like a cross between the Waterboys, the Levellers, Live and Radiohead, Colm Mac Con Iomaire's violin the one overtly Irish ingredient in an otherwise rather standard rock formation. Singer Glen Hansard's tense voice eschews Thom Yorke's falsettos, but achieves some of the same strained magnificence, and the violin helps provide some of the musical density that Radiohead achieves with their third guitar. The Frames seem most in their element, to me, when they draw from unseen wells of conflicted pain. The keening guitars and wailing vocals of "Revelate" give way, at length, to a carefully symmetrical chorus in which the music surges up a scale that the vocals wearily descend. "Angel at My Table"'s tortured chorus plea, "Will you be my anchor?", rearranges the usual syllable stresses as if the singer has repeated the question to himself so many times before voicing it that it has started to lose public meaning. Much of the becalmed "Say It To Me Now" reminds me of Afraid of Sunlight-era Marillion, especially at the ends of its dynamic bell-curve. Strings and acoustic guitar infuse the hushed "Red Chord" with symphonic restraint, shattered dramatically by wailing electric guitar incursions toward the end. I'm surprised, I admit, by how muted this album is, compared to Another Love Song, large swaths of which are furious and rousing guitar-pop magnanimity that adds the Wonder Stuff, the Alarm and the Pixies to the analogy list. "Monument" is really Fitzcarraldo's only raw rock song, squalling STP-like guitar riffs clashing impatiently in the wings of the verses and then flailing viciously at Hansard and backing vocalist Noreen O'Donnell's transported choruses. It's tempting to attribute part of the difference to the producers, as Pixies collaborator Gil Norton worked on most of Another Love Song, while Yes producer and alumnus Trevor Horn performs the office here, but I get the feeling from the pace and tenor of the music that the production was very much an effect, not a cause. Anybody can play fast, after all; holding attentions with quick and constant motion is necessary for pets, but people are capable of responding to more refined stimuli. Now, if only somebody would explain to whoever handwrote the lyric sheet that it is not necessary, in English, for apostrophes to be routinely involved in the construction of plurals.
Midnight Oil: Breathe
It reveals the language-centricity of my worldview, I'm aware, but to me there is a single chapter of ethnically inflected and grand rock music that starts (because this is me) with Big Country and wends its way through Scotland, Wales and Ireland and then, with no particular regard for the miles intervening, to Australia. Midnight Oil and Hunters & Collectors are clearly, to me, part of the same musical tradition as Runrig, U2, the Alarm, the Waterboys, Simple Minds and, for that matter, on yet another continent, Juluka. There must be something about the combination of the British Empire and the marginalization of subcultures within it that produces a characteristic overtone of fierce national pride in all these bands' songs, from "Fields of Fire" and "Where the Streets Have No Name" to "Dreamworld" and "When the River Runs Dry". Diesel and Dust, Midnight Oil's seminal 1988 album of aboriginal rights and anti-industrialism, is, along with The Crossing, Amazing Things and The Joshua Tree, one of the records from this subgenre that I consider a genuine Masterpiece, with some egotistical presumption of objectivity explicitly intended. Of the band's other albums, though, only the stunning 1992 live album Scream in Blue ever came close to affecting me as powerfully. The last one, 1993's Earth and Sun and Moon, struck me as a blustering, if still basically pleasant, retread of earlier glories. It takes a lot to get me to give up on a band, though, and I'm not sure even this was really Midnight Oil's last chance with me, but whatever the case, it'll now take several more dull records to use up the credits I've added for this one.
Breathe is not, honestly, a glaringly impressive album, but that's precisely why I'm so taken with it. Instead of trying to outdo Diesel and Dust for social consciousness-raising or outright musical spectacle, this album finds Midnight Oil content to simply play, and play simply. The production (by Malcolm Burn, whose capacity for studio-gadget restraint is convincingly demonstrated on Lisa Germano's albums) is clear and uncluttered, with none of the obtrusive processing that always used to make the band sound more like a clanky contraption some demented inventor assembled in an abandoned hangar than like a quintet playing in a room. The arrangements center around guitar, drums, bass, some sparing keyboards and Peter Garrett's voice, without the strings, horn sections or multi-tracked ghost-hordes that usually hover around the fringes of Midnight Oil albums like predatory cherubim. Even the compositions feel more organic and whole than they have on recent albums. Midnight Oil songs have often, before, had a tendency to veer into angular tempo digressions at the least provocation, which at times makes me more impatient for the choruses to arrive than I think is really healthy. Here the songs are given room to grow into their own shapes for a change, with the result that the choruses feel like natural outgrowths of the verses, rather than products of daring grafting experiments, and it's possible to listen to the entire record without feeling buffeted by incessant jarring juxtapositions. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with being buffeted, which was exactly the effect Diesel and Dust, at least, was after, but I'd started to think that the band had become so accustomed to yelling and shaking you, as their normal mode of conversation, that they'd forgotten how to communicate any other way, even when there was nothing alarming to report. Thus I'm relieved to discover that for at least one album the band has written songs that are mostly not calls to arms at all. They're about the ocean, common bonds, healing, home, love and apologies. There is "Bring on the Change", which roars and lashes out like somebody went back in time and switched all of the Edge's echo boxes for overdrive pedals right before U2 recorded War, but even this is a rock song, not the book-on-tape of the righteous apocalypse. Three tracks were recorded in New Orleans, which has to have helped with the relaxation process, and another one features a vocal cameo by Emmylou Harris, whose eerie voice almost necessitates the expunging of industrial clamor from the rest of the record by its mere presence. It's not low-fi, this isn't Midnight Oil's garage-rock album, but it's one on which they sound, for once, like just a band. If there's anybody besides me who also liked the Wizard better in person than in projection, then, this record has hearts, courage, brains, snacks for Toto, and all the magic slippers you'll need. Even to get back to Australia.
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