Friday, October 06, 2006

The Pogues, If I Should Fall From Grace With God
(Rhino Reissue, 2006)

"Punk" isn't a genre of music so much as it's a style in which other genres can be played. Since the 70's advent of punk, different sub-genres have popped up: country-punk, pop-punk, electro-punk, probably even frikkin' polka-punk (I'll leave Weird Al Yankovic to sort that one out). Some of the best Clash songs were basically pop songs done in an assertive, "punk" manner (don't get your ragged underwear in a knot over the suggestion that The Clash were pop. I'm not talking about Justin Timberlake pop, I'm talking about pop as in "has melody" and "more than a few chords". "Lost In The Supermarket" and "Train In Vain"--which plays on my local 80's station--are two very prominent examples.)

The Pogues was probably the first band to merge rowdy punk with rowdy bar-room Irish music. The Pogues wrote traditional Irish music and ripped it apart until it was purely, aggressively punk. This is evident in the first song on the album, the title track. It has the lightning-quick tempo of any bar song anyone's ever danced to. The violin is played as a fiddle and the result is all the more Irish for the harmonica and Shane MacGowan's scratchy, shredding vocals (listen to "Bottle of Smoke" for an idea of how much he can tear his voice apart for a song.) The subject matter could be Ireland: "This land was always ours, was the proud land of our fathers, it belongs to us and them, not to any of the others". This isn't the only neo-traditional Irish foot-stomper: "The Battle March (Medley)" (one of the bonus songs) sounds like it would be a great entry to one of the "Songs of the Celts" compilation CDs. In fact I think any one of those cds could do with one less Clannad song (there are hundreds of them anyway) and include this instead.

Even the songs with more international leanings such as "Turkish Song of the Damned" and "Fiesta" sound like Irish songs played with mostly non-Irish traditional instruments. "Turkish Song of the Damned" starts off as an approximation of Middle-Eastern music, but with the addition of the tin whistle soon leaves even the most un-Irish person wanting to drink to freedom in a bar-room on the Emerald Isle. They try to imitate a mariachi band in "Sketches of Spain". I won't say they succeed, but it does manage to sound a little less Irish than the other songs.

Besides writing oddly traditional sounding songs, the band also Include several genuinely traditional songs such as "Worms", "South Australia" and "Mountain Dew". "Worms" is almost dirgish--kinda scary, like something Neil Gaiman would think of in the middle of the night and use in the audio version of one of his books.

Though these songs are billed as "traditional", there's no mention of the culture the tradition stems from. "South Australia" is most likely Australian--it recounts the story of a person born and raised in Australia. Still sounds Irish, though. "Mountain Dew" seems to be Irish--he mentions Ireland, but do not ask me to translate what the hell the man is saying. I have no idea and I may hurt myself if I try to figure it out.

The most famous song from this collection is the Kirsty MacColl duet "Fairytale of New York". As well as writing energetic and engaging quasi-traditional pub songs, MacGowen and his partners write beautiful ballads, this being one of them. The bittersweet story of Irish Immigrants in New York at Christmas, Kirsty MacColl's wistful vocals and the lamenting piano add another layer of snowy gauze over the nostalgic beauty of this composition, made even more nostalgic by the knowledge that Kirsty passed away in 2000 (If you haven't heard any of her music, it's well worth investigating.) "Lullabye of London", another lovely ballad from this record, features (what I believe) is a dulcimer. This song, like many traditional folk ballads, is a prayer, a wish. In this case, he hopes "the ghosts that howl[ed] round the house at night" never keep the subject from sleep or cause her/him misery.

Hearing beautiful songs such as these makes it difficult to reconcile Shane MacGowan's reputation for irresponsible consumption of most things unhealthy. Don't make the mistake of thinking that his problems make him any less a songwriter or a performer. Even when he seemingly couldn't function he still gave the music and the shows his all. He was asked to leave The Pogues in the 90's because of his deterioration, but since he and The Pogues have reunited recently, there's hope that he's relaxed the hard-living somewhat.

The entire band give everything they have to these songs. Their reputation as multi-instrumentalists is borne out by their use of such eclectic instruments as the tin whistle, accordion, mandolin, dulcimer, cello, banjo and spoons (!). Yes, they use spoons. One of the most engaging aspects to a Pogues album is there's no limit. For a self-financed record, this is more intricate and involved than some of the most richly moneyed current CDs.

The Rhino 2006 reissue includes the original layout along with six additional songs, including a beautiful, lilting song named after MacGowan's ex-girlfriend, Shanne Bradley and the aforementioned "South Australia", "Battle March" and "Mountain Dew". It also includes a few paragraphs by Steve Earle recalling some very memorable nights of duets and drunkenness.

There's also a very long essay on the circumstances before and during the recording of the album. The Pogues were stuck in a legal quagmire with their collapsing label. To keep from losing their work, they self-financed If I Should Fall From Grace With God--they played live constantly just to make ends meet. They saw their album banned in Britain because of the song "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six", a commentary on the erroneous jailing of six people for a Northern Ireland bombing. The situation of these men was immediate and very disturbing for all citizens of Ireland; any creative person living during that time couldn't help but make it a part of their work. The Boomtown Rats wrote "I Hate Mondays" regarding the ongoing strife in Northern Ireland and The Pogues made this song. Obviously being banned in England didn't hurt their career; it probably helped get the attention they deserved.

If you've never heard this album and appreciate good, rousing Irish punk, I would recommend it. Getting the reissue means you get more music and more robust liner notes. Whether you're the traditionalist who wants the album as it was, new liner notes and songs be damned, or you're the person who wants the latest and most enhanced version around, this record still stands as the penultimate Irish recording of the 80's (okay, we'll put U2 in another category because they just can't be compared).

The Rhino reissue can be found here. Credits and song titles can be found here. Also, they have a website.

Personal Note:

Writing reviews is tough for me. I'm not a natural non-fiction writer. I write strange fiction with characters that barely seem plausible. Writing about real stuff is hard for me. Description is hard for me, which is one of the reasons I write reviews. I hate doing it and I'm not good at it, but as a writer it would be beneficial to me to become better at "description".

Soon I'll begin work on the review for Tori Amos: Selections From A Piano Collection. I don't know yet how I'm going to write a review on part of a CD, but I'll figure it out.

If you see anything wrong about this review, let me know. Did I get someone's name wrong? Spell something wrong? I'm sure I made some mistakes, but hopefully not anything too unforgivable.

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