Thursday 24 May 2018

Music: Rock girls doing it for themselves

Unashamedly political: Irish quintet - September Girls.
Unashamedly political: Irish quintet - September Girls.
John Meagher

John Meagher

Last weekend, I posed a question on Twitter. "With the exception of September Girls and Wyvern Lingo," I asked, "have any other all-female Irish bands made an impact?" And, I quipped, B*Witched, Bellefire and those other wretched girl-bands from the early 2000s most certainly didn't count.

The responses failed to unearth some great Hiberno version of the Runways that I had somehow missed, although the critic and Horslip Eamon Carr highlighted the merits of the late 1970s punk outfit the Boy Scoutz, contemporaries of early U2, whose slim oeuvre is worth investigation.

Elsewhere, it was the usual suspects. How about Maxi, Dick and Twink, asked one? What about the Nolans, wondered another? Somebody else, tongue presumably firmly in cheek, volunteered the Nualas, the comedy trio led by Anne Gildea. Well, their routine does involve jokey songs and half-played guitars so they are delivering music of sorts and even their lamest efforts are better that the pap-pop B*Witched foisted on the world.

My little social-media exercise proved an uncomfortable truth. While there may be all sorts of guff spoken about the great heritage of Irish music - I'll tackle that chestnut another day - the country's track record in producing really special all-female groups is utterly dismal. Non-existent really.

September Girls - named after a Big Star song - are the first band to truly make a credible stab at it, and their just-released second album, Age of Indignation, is a highly impressive piece of work.

The quintet are armed with strong songs and they have plenty to say, with 'Catholic Guilt', for instance, sure to have extra special resonance for their fellow countrywomen and men who feel the church, weakened though it may be, continues to exert a disproportionately heavily influence on social policy. It packs an especially strong punch in an Ireland that continues to deny women the sort of abortion rights that are taken for granted in most of the Western world.

There's considerable anger, too, on 'Jaw on the Floor', a song inspired by both the 1916 Rising and early feminism. The song features a guest appearance from Oliver Ackermann, leader of the Brooklyn indie outfit, A Place to Bury Strangers. (September Girls spent time on the road last year as opening act on that band's tour.)

The knives are out on 'Love No One' for those narcissists who suck the joy out of modern life, especially on social media. Its low-budget video is eerily atmospheric.

The quality of Age of Indignation will come as no surprise to those of us smitten by the quintet's 2014 debut album, Cursing the Sea, but this one is much more substantial. Where the first was informed by the personal, this one is unashamedly political. It's a reminder that very few of their Irish contemporaries are writing songs coloured by the society they live in - and what a shame.

The quintet have been around in various guises for some time. Four of September Girls - Paula Cullen, Caoimhe Derwin, Jessie Ward O'Sullivan and Lauren Kerchner - used to be members of the short-lived Tallulah Does the Hula, although its all-female status was sullied by the presence of drummer Mike Winder. They never got around to releasing an album, but one of their songs, 'Those Girls', was chosen as the theme for RTÉ's half-hearted foray into scripted reality TV drama, Fade Street.

Cullen and Derwin cut their teeth in the Chalets, the early 2000s indie-pop band that was tipped for the big-time by some but couldn't escape from the margins, despite having a number of their songs used on the soundtrack of the painfully earnest but hugely popular Grey's Anatomy.

Ward O'Sullivan and Kerchner, for their parts, were members of the more esoteric Neosupervital. Incidentally, September Girls' fifth member, Sarah Grimes, played in the Debutantes, another band formed by Paula Cullen.

While all those groups left small ripples, September Girls will surely be more than just a footnote. Age of Indignation is one of the more arresting home-grown albums of the year to date and if their London record label Fortuna POP! box clever when promoting it, it'll get them noticed internationally, too.

I'm less enthused by Wyvern Lingo, that other Irish all-female band getting people talking today, but there's no denying the three Bray friends' ability to fashion exceptionally catchy songs. That's certainly apparent on their debut EP, Letters to Willow, which has just been released.

The country's biggest promoter have taken them under their wings and the last Wicklow act to get the MCD management treatment was Hozier. You might have heard of him. Nice bloke. Long hair.

If all-female bands are thin on the ground in Ireland, they're not exactly plentiful on the global stage, either. A study of the six largest music festivals in Britain in 2014 showed that while 43pc of all 650 acts playing were all-male bands, just 3pc - a paltry 14 groups - were composed entirely of females.

One of those bands, Dum Dum Girls, delivered a third album, Too True, that year and that's among my favourite releases of the past five years. But my hopes that a follow-up might see the light this year seem unlikely. In January, band leader Dee Dee Penny announced a solo project, Kristin Kontrol, in order to "open things up and shed light on significant influences that felt off-limits in Dum Dum land". The Californian's new album, X-Communicate, will be released by the esteemed Sub Pop label next month. Quite what she plans for her band of sisters is anyone's guess.

September Girls play Cyprus Avenue, Cork, tonight. Age of Indignation is out now. Wyvern Lingo play Abner Brown's Barbershop, Dublin, tonight

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