independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Didn't you listen to anything we said last year?

Having digested all the year-end polls and critics' lists of the best albums of 2007, no single record emerged as the one that defined the year in the way that, say, 2006 belonged to the Arctic Monkeys. But this time around there was a healthy diversity of opinion among the rock commentariat, who lapped up a dizzying mix of Afro-beat, dubstep, Nu Rave, swamp rock, punk-funk, Americana...

The online tastemakers formed a virtual Tower of Babel: Pitchfork's critics plumped for Panda Bear's "psychedelic disorientation"; The Onion AV Club critics gave the nod to Arcade Fire's "unabashedly un-ironic" Neon Bible -- which didn't even make the Top 30 of music critic Sinead Gleeson's blog (she chose PJ Harvey's White Chalk).

Indeed, all of the above included albums that completely bypassed this writer's radar, which means that the traditionally slow month of January can be given over to pursuing those obscure objects of desire.

But just how many groundbreaking groups can Iceland produce in any one year? Dozens, apparently. In the past, many of these were destined to have a fanbase smaller than Hell's snowball population. But now they're all out there in the cybershop window, and just as likely to find a loving home in Rooskey as Reykjavik.

But then you see the Irish album charts for the last week of the year and you realise that the record-buying public have not paid a blind bit of notice to what you or any of your colleagues have written. They did not actually go out and buy Richmond Fontaine's masterful slice-of-life Thirteen Cities for the brother. The uncle's Christmas stocking did not contain Richard Hawley's Lady's Bridge. Those Icelandic bands, with their sky-scraping soundscapes, soundtracked no Yuletide party round our way.

What did they get instead? Michael Buble. Across the land, thousands ripped off the wrapping paper to find Celine Dion's new album staring back at them. More still were given the gift of Garth Brooks' Greatest Hits. And yet more still figured that Westlife's new magnum opus would really hit the spot this Xmas. And these were in the ha'penny place compared to those X Factor clones, Leona Lewis and Shayne Ward, who right now are emoting from countless numbers of iPods and home stereo systems throughout our villages, towns and cities.

And with Pavarotti gone, it seems we bought granny the new Andrea Bocelli retrospective. And we got the nephew the 8th Gift Grub album.

What is to be done? With so much good stuff out there, we'd rather surf a tsunami of schmaltz, ersatz emotion and fake sincerity. No one has done more to destroy country music's image than Garth Brooks -- the man who Kinky Friedman once dubbed 'the anti-Hank' is what happens when you let marketing graduates into recording studios. One of the most cynical things I ever saw in my time covering music was when Brooks brought his wife onto the stage at Croke Park and, when he was ready for his close-up on the giant video screens, let a single tear fall from his eye. I wanted to vomit all over his clip-on mic.

And I shudder at the memory of seeing Celine in Lansdowne Road. I feared for every pane of glass in Dublin 4 -- note to Celine: just because you can hold a note for 28 minutes solid doesn't mean you should. But the nadir was when she brought out the gospel choir in their flowing white robes in a phoney attempt to co-opt a little soul into her act.

But it's not as if the airwaves are so clogged full of dross that no decent music gets heard. Only last Sunday I turned on the wireless and revelled in Bob Dylan's quirky themed music hour on Phantom FM. Instead of the anti-Hank, Bob played the original of the species; he interviewed Elvis Costello about his dad's jazz career; and he raided his vinyl collection to bring us some vintage blues singers.

Then, over on Today FM, Donal Dineen broadcast a two-hour special from the living room of David Gray's London home, where Gray and Liam O'Maonlai traded songs and stories on the piano and acoustic guitar, intermittently picking their Desert Island Discs for Dineen to spin.

To be honest, I'm not really a fan of either's music but there was a spirit of openness and camaraderie and generosity that made for great radio.

When he's not singing those glum break-up songs, Gray is an affable and articulate guy, and his selections -- Nina Simone's extraordinary reading of Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues, Sinatra's killer version of Quiet Night Of Quiet Stars, and The Innocence Mission's gorgeous Look For Me As You Go By -- were all inspired. Another unexpected treat was his note-perfect version of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's One With The Birds.

From the Hothouse Flowers we heard a fine version of Dylan's Love In Vain and Carrickfergus. And the ever-genial host chipped in with memories of family holidays spent driving around the Kerry countryside, drowning out the sound of Margo from the car radio by listening to Van and U2 on his walkman.

But will Nina and the Bonnie Prince knock dumb and dumber off their perch at the summit of the charts next week? The chances, I'd say, are slim and slimmer.

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