Is romantic Ireland dead and gone?
A couple are taking a stroll in the park with their toddler; the man (all in black and balding) is pushing the pram, but casting a sideways glance at the siren walking past in an LBD, sexy black fishnets and 'danger here' red shoes ...
This highly evocative image adorns the cover of the excellent new Pony Club album, aptly titled Post Romantic, which is released next week on Hum Recordings.
"As you get older, when you're in a relationship ... you're still looking at other women. Everybody knows that," says Pony Club singer and songwriter Mark Cullen, when we meet in a Dublin hotel bar. "All your wives and girlfriends know that you do. They say 'oh, he doesn't look at other women as much as your man does'. But us men are all the same; we're all scumbags!"
And the cover?
"It was photographed in the Phoenix Park. It was set up: the two girls knew the pic was being taken, but the guy didn't. And he reacted exactly as I thought he might!"
It's been a while since we heard from Cullen -- this new record was actually slated to come out some years earlier, but got shelved for various reasons, including his wife's illness. However, it still sounds fresh and up-to-date -- Cullen offering an urbane Jarvis-like commentary on the state of romance in the 21st century, and the vagaries of ageing somewhat less than gracefully.
One of the stand-out tracks is 'To Tell The Truth', a self-lacerating spoken-word song listing life's ever-expanding disappointments. It's already been picked up by the likes of Phantom radio.
Cullen, a thirtysomething Dubliner, first started making music in the late Nineties when he formed Bawl with his brothers Darren and Jason.
Hooking up with A House manager John Carroll, they moved to London where, in the wave of post-Britpop euphoria, they were signed to A&M Records; but like many before them, they saw their major label dream turn into a legal nightmare after the veteran label (whose roster included the likes of The Police) went bust. The band were forced to change their name in 1999 to Fixed Stars, but the album -- which they had recorded with former Lightning Seeds mainman Ian Broudie and Dave Bascombe (who's worked with everyone from Echo & The Bunnymen to The Human League and Girls Aloud) -- never saw the light of day. That said, their single Here Comes The Music was covered by Ash.
However, pop icons like Terry Hall and Morrissey declared themselves fans -- the latter even asking Pony Club to support him on his 53-date American tour in 2004. Alas, finances didn't allow the band to take Moz up on his offer, but they did get to support him on his comeback gig in London's Royal Albert Hall that year.
In the meantime, as if things weren't already complicated enough, a band of voguish Nu-Rave upstarts from London arrived on the scene, calling themselves New Young Pony Club. "I think they thought we'd broken up," says Cullen. "I couldn't bring myself to change the name again -- three times! I couldn't think of another name that I liked. It's just the way it is -- we'll just be the Old Decrepit Pony Club."
Unlike so many of his peers, who effect a mid-Atlantic twang once inside a recording studio, Cullen -- who grew up near the Liberties and in Finglas -- is one of the few Irish rock singers happy to sing in his own accent.
"I used to be really conscious about that," he says. "I felt I had to sing in my own voice. It does make you stand out. Dublin is weird when you come back to it after being away because there are so many different accents. Some of them are quite beautiful, whereas I wouldn't even have noticed it before."
As for the current domestic music scene, Cullen says he laments a lack of any clear Irish identity in today's groups.
"The Blades could only have come from Dublin; and Cathal Coughlan represented the mental-ness of Cork. When you move away from Ireland, it's hard to retain a strong Irish identity -- whether that means anything to the rest of the world. Normally, it doesn't."
Post Romantic is out now. Visit www.ponyclub.tv for more