Monday 30 September 2013

Doctor Millar - C48

Doctor Millar


Mass Market Recordings

Desmond Traynor


It has long been an open secret, at least among ‘us critics’, that the good Doctor, Sean Millar, is Ireland’s greatest living singer/songwriter. That this critical acclaim has never been matched by commercial success is immaterial (in the philosophical sense, at least, if not the financial one), as such mainstream acceptance has eluded lots of the finest: Bill Fay, Sixto Rodriguez, The Go-Betweens. Get my drift? In my perfect world, Dr. Millar would be as big as The Corrs were.

   Since 1995’s solo debut, The Bitter Lie, every Sean Millar album has been an event, but if possible, C86 ups his game. While its title slyly refers back to the NME’s now legendary giveaway cassette tape of indie luminaries, the salad days of men and women who are now of a certain age, the album can also be defined by a new maturity in the work.

  Opener ‘Wake Up Outside London’ could be The Bitter Lie’s ‘Alcohol Problem’ anti-hero poet manqué revisited, twenty years later.  All his friends have ‘settled down’ with wives, kids, houses, but he’s still going to distant parties, without even the fare home. ‘You button up your coat because your shirt is stained with wine’. What elevates this above just another sob story of a refusal (or inability) to grow up is the pathos of someone whose problems are so ill-defined yet all-pervasive that they are not ever going to be solved by talking to someone. ‘You’re on the run from heartbreak/You’re on the run from shame/People want to understand/But you just can’t explain’.
  It makes sense that this road not taken, might-have-been life (Dr. Millar’s double, his shadow self) is followed by the life that is being lived now. ‘My Kids’ is as transparently eloquent as its title suggests, a paean to the writer’s offspring, ‘…like gold to me/In you I see my prosperity/Oh my little apple tree’.
  Indeed Love, in its many varieties, guises and incarnations, is the prevailing theme of the record. From the straight-up contented blue-eyed soul of a gorgeous duet with Miriam Ingram, ‘I’ve Never Loved Somebody’; to the hard-won victory of ‘Dancing With Dogs’, lent a vague trad vibe by Steve Wickham’s fiddle figures; to the unrequited desperation of ‘You Fill My Heart With Greed’, replete with prime Dylanesque drawl; to the visceral void of frankly self-explanatory hidden track ‘Sick With Desire’: it’s all in there.
  The Cohenesque phrasing, intonation and chops of ‘Your Eyes Like Sorrow’, and the odd perspective shift of ‘Don’t Take It Out On The Boy’ are among Millar’s grittiest, most unvarnished compositions yet, where lyrical dexterity is equal to the complex emotions involved.
  In contrast to many riding under the singer/songwriter banner, and perhaps because of the very excellence of his songwriting gifts, both the Doctor’s singing and his guitar-playing prowess often go overlooked. The voice is by turns rich and deep, and light and airy, when it needs to be, in accordance with the material. His finger-picking is up there with the best of them, as are his blues bends in his soloing, as illustrated on ‘I’ve Never Loved Somebody’ and ‘You Fill My Heart With Greed’. He is ably abetted here by Joe Chester on occasional guitar, who does his best Richard Hawley out of Chris Isaak out of Hank Marvin out of Link Wray eerie Bigsby vibrato on ‘The Devil’s Dirty Rhyme’, a slice of Nick Cave/Gun Club country gothic (when is Camille O’Sullivan going to start covering his songs?), but he is more than capable of doing his own version of spooky, as the twangy solo on ‘Something About The Way He Walks’ demonstrates. Also indispensible to this palette are Steve Wickham’s contributions, most especially on the above-mentioned ‘Dancing With Dogs’, ‘Your Eyes Like Sorrow’ and ‘The Devil’s Dirty Secret’, but also the closer ‘The Morning Shift’.
  This parting shot is yet another gem, in voice and mood the wondrous hybrid child of Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Some Velvet Morning’ and Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ (in its Johnny Cash version).

Monday 23 September 2013

Graham Parker at Whelan's

I went to Graham Parker's solo show at Whelan's on Saturday night. Not bad, but his songs really need the full Rumour treatment for maximum effect.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Manchester City 4 v Manchester United 1

Well friends, I think it’s safe to say who owns Manchester now. Rarely have I been so happy in my life. Brings me back to the days of the Maine Road Massacre. Or the ‘1-6’ (the 6-1). All over the pitch, superior in every position. Kompany just owned Rooney, didn’t he? Heads down, march onward. Next…?

Friday 20 September 2013

The Strypes at The Academy

The Strypes

The Academy

Thursday, September 19th

Desmond Traynor

Everyone knows The Strypes are retro, but what of it? There’s good retro and bad retro, and these guys fortunately fall into the former category. As they’ve said themselves, perhaps with a touch of hubris, The Stones started out playing covers. So did The Beatles, for that matter. Most bands do, unless they can’t actually play other people’s songs.
  There is, of course, the danger that they can be dismissed as just a showband for old guys my age, who want to feel comfortably vindicated that the music they like is being taken up with passion and assurance by the younger generation. There’s also the problem that, what with all the positive plaudits being bandied about by some of their heroes like Wilko Johnson and Paul Weller (both of whom they’ve recently shared stages with), Noel Gallagher, Dave Grohl and Elton John (???), people will stop cutting them some slack because of their ages (ranging from 15 to 17 year old), and start questioning if they are serious contenders, regardless of their fresh-faced youth. These concerns, however, are dissipated in the euphoric rush of their live set.
  In deference, perhaps, to the younger members of the audience, the Cavan boys take the stage at 9pm (after a warm-up poem by none other than admirer B.P. Fallon) and finish up at 10.30 (rather than the more usual 9.30-11 shift). The gig is an official album launch for their debut Snapshot, so not surprisingly most of it gets played. They kick off with ‘Mystery Man’ followed by ‘She’s So Fine’. ‘What The People Don’t See’, ‘She’s So Fine’ and ‘Angel Eyes’ all follow in quick succession.
  What’s obvious is that, while guitarist Josh McClorey fairly bosses it on stage, musically the band work as a tight integrated unit. Bassist Pete O'Hanlon may only come into his own later on, when he swaps his instrument for a harmonica, and drummer Evan Walsh – no Keith Moon – tends to lose out in the visual stakes, stuck as he is behind his kit, but they anchor the sound solidly. ‘Blue Collar Jane’ is particularly raucous, and ‘Perfect Strom’ and ‘Hometown Girls’ also figure. For a bunch of lads who’ve quit school to do this before even getting into Leaving Cert class, they’ve certainly got the moves and the camera-pleasing poses, and most importantly, the chops. McClorey is already a brilliant, confident guitarist, the equal of any twice or three times his age.
  As always, the set is liberally sprinkled with covers, including Bo Diddley’s ‘I Can Tell’ and Willie Dixon’s (recorded by Bo Diddley) ‘You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover’ (both from the album), and ‘CC Rider’ (recorded by EVERYONE from ‘Ma’ Rainey onwards) and Slim Harpo’s ‘Got Love If You Want It’ (neither from the album).
  The show climaxes, as does the record, with their covers of Nick Lowe’s ‘Heart Of The City’ and Muddy Water’s (via Memphis Slim, Elmore James, Bob Dylan and Trad. Arr.) ‘Rollin’ And Tumblin’’, while the encore consists of more standards in Chuck Berry’s ‘Little Queenie’ and Bobby Troup’s (via Nat ‘King’ Cole and The Rolling Stones) ‘Route 66’.
  Amid the hysteria and hype (which I thoroughly endorse, by the way) it’s worth pointing out that The Strypes are not yet quite the finished article. For a start, though songs like ‘Blue Collar Jane’ and ‘Angel Eyes’ are getting there, their originals have yet to match the standard of the standards they cover so well. Then, as regards their live show, any band where the lead guitarist does all the talking and the lead singer stays silent between songs is going to come over as lopsided. The relationship between the singer and the guitarist in a band is a finely balanced thing, where neither should completely dominate. At the moment, Josh is simply a too charismatic, commanding presence on stage for the group dynamic’s own good. There should be a greater sense of even friendly competitiveness between the two visual lynchpins, and sometimes singer (and youngest member) Ross Farrelly can appear as the weakest link, hanging back when he should be strutting his stuff, never a good thing in a ‘front’ man. One thinks of the example of their beloved Feelgoods, where, not to be outdone when Wilko started his robotic marching back and forth soloing, Lee Brilleaux, in one of those great WTF? rock moments, would drop on all fours and start doing push-ups centre stage. One thinks, further, of The Clash’s three-pronged attack. I was pleased to see Pete O'Hanlon channeling his inner Brilleaux in this way at one point, when Josh takes over bass duties and Ross does some rudimentary guitar playing, while Pete has his moment in the spotlight doing his crazy, head-shaking harmonica solos – but it’s really Ross’s job to step up to the plate and grab some more attention. Time to turn it up a couple of notches, Ross.
  Despite these caveats, the fact cannot be denied: The Strypes are very, very good at what they are doing. How big they can be is still in the lap of the gods, but one hopes they are not crushed by the pressures of early success and the weight of expectation on their teenage shoulders.
  These Kids Are Alright.

Here's a link to a YouTube video of The Strypes joined by Wilko Johnson and John B. Sparks of Dr. Feelgood for a go at the Feelgood's 'She Does It Right;, The Oysterfleet Hotel, Canvey Island, August 8th, 2013. All the more poignant as Wilko has terminal cancer. The tradition is in safe hands, and the flame has been passed.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Ry Cooder and Corridos Famosos - Live at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, Aug 31-Sept 1 2011

Ry Cooder and Corridos Famosos

Live at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, Aug 31-Sept 1 2011

Nonesuch / Perro Verde Records

Desmond Traynor


Ry Cooder has apparently only released one live album previously in his career, 1977’s Show Time, which was recorded 35 years prior to this set, at the exact same venue. San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, where I once saw Jonathan Richman, is like Dublin’s Olympia, only glitzier. Jonathan described it as “my idea of a great room”, and it does lend itself to a convivial atmosphere and audience participation, which this record captures perfectly.
  Cooder reprises four songs from that first live set here, Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds’ ‘School Is Out’, the Chips Moman/Dan Penn-composed cheating classic ‘The Dark End of The Street’, Woody Guthrie’s dustbowl warning about California as a supposed promised land, ‘Do Re Mi’, and the beautiful Mexican ballad ‘Volver Volver’, sung here by his daughter-in-law Juliette Commagere, and given the full mariachi treatment by ten-piece Tex-Mex brass and percussion band, Le Banda Juvenil. Cooder is also reunited with accordion player Flaco Jimenez and vocalist Terry Evans, from the previous outing, the former contributing mellow lines to ‘Do Re Mi’ and ‘Dark End’, the latter joined by Arnold McCuller to duet on ‘Dark End’. The remainder of the band includes Ry’s son (and Juliette’s husband), Joachim, on drums, and bass player Robert Francis.
  The rest of the set consists largely of a trawl through Cooder’s back catalogue. He has always chosen his heritage favourites sagaciously and eclectically, and here we are treated to readings of ‘Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile’, ‘Why Don’t You Try Me’, Sam The Sham’s ‘Wooly Bully’, the makeover of another Guthrie folk standard, into the vicious slide guitar blues of ‘Vigilante Man’, and a tender, soulful rendition of Leadbelly’s ‘Goodnight Irene’ as closer, with Jimenez’s accordion and Cooder’s guitar answering each other consummately.
  It’s not all nostalgia, however, as there are two Cooder originals from his then-current album, Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down, the intentionally absurd inverse racism of ‘Lord Tell Me Why’, and the politically charged yet humourous ‘El Corrido De Jesse James’, a song that finds the erstwhile outlaw looking down from heaven at Wall Street bankers and brokers, and asking God, ‘con permisso’, for his old .44 so he can do a Robin Hood and ‘put the bonus money back where it belongs’.
  For those fans who have longed for a document of the looseness and intuitive interplay of Ryland’s live performances, which occasionally got lost amid the fussiness of some of his studio fare, Live in San Francisco is just the ticket they’ve been waiting for.