From Cork to Dublin: The New Wave
By Ian Worpole, Contributor
February / March 2007
Ian Worpole looks at three albums by a fresh crop of Irish musicians
A whole New Year, and a whole new crop of Irish rockers set to invade these shores. After 50-odd years of this modern stuff, the boundaries are naturally blurred between the Rock genres, with Soft Rock, Hard Rock, Folk Rock, Progressive Rock, Pop, Garage, Punk, Post-Punk, you get the picture. And when we talk about Pop, is it the American Idol variety, featuring melismic wailing and histrionics, or the cleverly crafted three-minute gem in the groove of the Beatles all the way through to Coldplay, with the likes of Steely Dan, the Beach Boys and U2 along the way. I’m pleased to say the first band up today is in this latter vein: Cork-based band FRED has just released its second CD, Making Music So You Don’t Have To, and its in the self-described genre of Odd Rock. It seems Cork has lately become a hotbed of creative new bands, and FRED undoubtedly leads the pack.
I caught up with this hugely talented quintet on a recent short tour of the East Coast, at the Red Lion in New York City. Leader Joe O’Leary is an exuberant singer, guitarist and entertainer; he explained that these days it is quite impossible to not be influenced by all that has come before, you just pick your favorites. Indeed, I don’t envy bands starting out today; there is surely nothing new under the sun to write, sing and play about, and yet it constantly amazes me that the good ones do come up with something unique. FRED (their keyboard player, Eibhilin O’Gorman enlightened me to the fact that the name means absolutely nothing; no band member or acronym, it was plucked out of the air) has come up with a rollicking sound that brings echoes of The Who, the Beach Boys and indeed the Beatles. Along with guitarist Jamie Hanrahan, Joe summons up echoes of John and Paul at their early best, and it is a wonderful thing. FRED’s press release states their biggest influence, though, is the American (albeit bigger in Europe) band the Flaming Lips, and it’s easy to see why at a live performance, with a joyful energy and take-no-prisoners approach, with song titles like “4 Chords and the Truth,” a rap on the certainty of being young and alive. “Wouldn’t It Be Gold” addresses the concept I referred to: “There’s nothing left to add, they’ve used up all the words,” with the punchline, “I just want to break even.” The closing track, “The Capital Song,” is a lament to the fact that, without actually naming place-names, all the good-looking girls from Cork head up to Dublin as soon as they can. The final verse runs: “And if you’re one of one in three losing their mind,you can always take your time, avoid the queues and catch the last bus home back here, you know we’ll always be down here my friend, time to come back home” and then the ironic chorus: “Two million people can’t be wrong; We’d like to stay, but not for long,” sung by a massed choir, which, as Eibhilin informed me, was a sound achieved on a tight budget by throwing a party for all their musical pals and having a somewhat inebriated sing-along. Drummer Justin O’Mahony provides complex patterns that call to mind the Talking Heads and David Byrne’s subsequent sound, and Eibhilin’s piano has a Philip Glass quality that adds a quirky layer weaving in and out of the beat; two bass-players are listed in the credits, Jamie O’Donovan and Emmett Christie, both superlative. Indeed, the whole album has a powerful and complex sound, with a horn section here, a string quartet there. I suggested to Joe O’Leary that someone must have great faith in them at so early a stage in their career. “Yes,” he replied, “our bank manager.” FRED is currently taking Ireland by storm, with such accolades as “best album of the tear” and “unbelievably brilliant” being applied by the Irish press, with sold-out concerts around Ireland, London and Europe. All songs are credited to FRED only, so this must be a truly democratic, truly close bunch of friends. Check them out at: www.fredtheband.com. My 18-year-old daughter listens to nothing else – it must be right!
So now we do in fact move up to Dublin for our next band, the trio Guggenheim Grotto. Let’s hope none of them are the one in three apparently losing their minds (FRED said it, not me), for this is another fine band, albeit in a very different vein, and their new album Waltzing Alone is getting great reviews. My old pal from his Woodstock days, Nice Harcourt, is on the cover sticker, describing it as “One of the most beautiful records of the year.” Nice, now at L.A.’s KCRW, is kingmaker to the likes of Norah Jones, so pay attention! At first hearing, a seemingly laid-back soft rock sound, Waltzing Alone on further investigation becomes a rather darker, positively cerebral sound, with the truly poetic lyrics sung in tight-knit harmonies. In the category of “sounds like,” Paul Simon (solo, and with Art), Leonard Cohen, and Nick Drake spring to mind. Indeed, Kevin May’s song “Koan” is a “tribute of sorts” to Mr. Cohen, with lines such as “Do angels and devils deal from one deck of cards/You must sing more sad/ You know the world wouldn’t feel so bad/ if you would sing more sad.”
Fellow vocalist Mick Lynch mentions hitting some CSNY harmony notes he liked, and percussionist Shane Power details the search for a Tom Waits kind of sound on one or two tracks. Almost all the lyrics are by Mr. May, who started his career on the Dublin singer/songwriter circuit, subsequently teaming up with Mick Lynch in 2003.
My only beef with this fine CD is that the first five pages of the extensive notes are devoted to a printout of a website discussion of the nature of CD packaging (mostly bad, it seems). Since none of the band members are involved or mentioned, I’m not sure what they’re getting at here, other than to draw attention to the fact their CD is packaged very nicely indeed. OK, a trivial gripe, but I have to have one per article to keep me sane.
Any of the performers I’ve mentioned so far have a sound that could hail from almost anyplace – there is no particular Irish lilt, reference or instrumentation that gives them away. This may be a feature of the current rock/pop music scene, as opposed to the more traditional fare that uses place-names, accents and events as a matter of course, and many past Celtic rockers such as Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher, Horslips along with U2, the Cranberries and The Frames have a distinct Irish edge. I certainly don’t mean the lack of it to be a criticism – I’m originally from Essex, but doubt if I would put Southend pier into song, even if it is the longest in the world – but there is one modern-day wonder that is as fiercely Irish as they come, and sounds it in every note.
Dublin native Damien Dempsey, with his latest CD, Shots, recently released in the U.S., is nothing less than a whirlwind of anthemic folk/rock/rap. Sinéad O’Connor is on record as stating “Damo” wipes the floor with all others, and she should know. Morrissey is another fan. Dempsey’s songs of the dispossessed, the junkies, the single mothers, the angry brigade, they’re all here, but the great thing is, Dempsey has an incredible ear for melody, and with a powerful singing voice in the Van Morrison vein, backed by ueillean pipes, guitars and powerhouse drums, he is the sort of performer that has you leaping off your chair to turn the dial up to eleven; indeed, while listening on my car stereo I realized I was up to 90 miles an hour by the last track, so be careful out there. He also writes a delicate love song, usually sung an octave higher than his rapping, much like Van the Man’s early work. Included in the U.S. release of Shots are three live tracks from a previous European album, recorded at Dublin’s Olympia theatre. With microphones placed around the theatre to capture the voice of the crowd, it is obvious this man has a huge following in Ireland that knows every word of every song, giving the live tracks the air of being present at the biggest football match on earth. I caught him recently at a short solo gig at Rocky Sullivan’s in New York, and even on these shores he had a raucous crowd eating out of his hand, singing along to virtually every word. Here is a man who deserves universal recognition in the Irish community abroad.
So there you have it, some of the very best of the new breed of rockers from Cork to Dublin and beyond. As I cast my eye back over the list, I realize that everyone mentioned writes their own completely original material; no mean feat. Oh yes, U2 have a new one out too, a collection of their singles. I bet it’s pretty good. ♦