Entertainment Music

Saturday 21 April 2018

The state of Irish music: why I don't like what I'm hearing

Trad kings: The Gloaming have just released a superb second album.
Trad kings: The Gloaming have just released a superb second album.
John Meagher

John Meagher

Blame it on 1916. This year has seen us - well, certainly those of us who ply our trade in the media - take stock of what it is to be Irish. Virtually every aspect of our social, political and cultural life has been parsed and pored over already and with St Patrick's Day just around the corner, it's as good a time as any to take the temperature of Irish music and look at what's good and bad, and, in exceptional cases, great.

Is this a special time for home-grown music or an unremarkable one? It's a question that can be answered two ways. If one were to look at the big names who are enjoying overseas success, it would be difficult to deduce that Irish music is in a special place. But scratch below the surface and there's a remarkable variety of acts delivering work that truly resonates for those willing to seek it out.

With the best will in the world, it's exceptionally difficult to be enthused about either Kodaline or the Script - a pair of bands whose ability to write insidiously catchy, radio-baiting tunes cannot mask the utter paucity of ideas and verve at the heart of what they do.

It's largely the same story with Walking On Cars, the Kerry quintet whose recently released album, Everything This Way, was the sound of a band straining every fibre for the big time. They proffer songs you can whistle back on second listen, yet sound terribly slight and inconsequential.

Gavin James is better than that, and there's no doubt the Dubliner can sing, but thus far his song-writing skills don't match his vocal ones. Debut album Bitter Pill is a dull, safe work very much in the Ed Sheeran ballpark. Of course, that's manna to the ears of many, but Sheeran isn't anything like a great songwriter, and is unlikely ever to be. It seems foolhardy to knock Hozier, too. He's enjoyed enormous critical success and a handful of songs on his self-titled debut are very good. His voice is great as well. Yet, he's a long way from the finished product and Hozier does contain an awful lot of filler. Admit it.

Outside the orbit of the seemingly indestructible U2, that lot are either our big sellers or the ones that have been hyped remorselessly by the industry. It's a pretty sorry bunch.

Thank heavens, then, for The Gloaming - who have been attracting ecstatic reviews here and overseas and have just released a superb second album, 2. The veritable trad super-group - whose members comprise Martin Hayes, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Dennis Cahill and New York pianist/producer Thomas Bartlett - were on fire last week during their sold-out five-night residency at the National Concert Hall. They're a properly great band - one whose artful remodelling of trad will stand the test of time.

And thank heavens, too, for Roisín Murphy, whose career post-Moloko has yielded some marvellous music, including the strange left-field pop of Hairless Toys, her latest album, and the one that really should have won the Choice Music Prize last week. The award, which seeks to recognise the best Irish album of the year, went to young Derry singer SOAK for her fine debut Before We Forgot How to Dream, but I thought there were at least four more complete albums: Murphy's; Girl Band's Holding Hands with Jamie; Villagers' Darling Arithmetic and Jape's The Chemical Sea.

The latter pair are previous winners, with Jape bagging the gong on an unprecedented two occasions, yet while both have been admired for some years now, their combined sales would look pretty bleak when stacked alongside the Script or Hozier. But there's such quality there: the pair are responsible for half a dozen essential home-grown albums.

Girl Band, incidentally, are part of an exciting wave of bands who eschew a populist approach and instead plough their own distinct furrow. Their music is thrilling and uncompromising and can be filed alongside the Northern Irish quartet Girls Names, now on album number two, and the superb Limerick trio Bleeding Heart Pigeons, whose recently released debut, Is, startles with its inventiveness.

Ireland has long punched above its weight in the singer-songwriter stakes, but the ones impressing most aren't those earnest types prattling on about love and loss, but the likes of Cian Nugent, whose off-kilter songs sound quite unlike any of his peers - latest album Night Fiction confirms his brilliance as a guitarist - and Lisa O'Neill, a quietly impressive troubadour whose strong Cavan singing-voice accent is delightfully at odds with all those clones whose origins are never betrayed by their vocals.

Those wishing to see some of the aforementioned names in action might want to set the DVR for 11pm tonight as RTÉ2 is screening a one-hour Choice Music Prize highlights programme presented by Bláthnaid Treacy. It will feature live performances from Villagers, Colm Mac Con Iomaire and Le Galaxie as well as winner SOAK. Gavin James, who was also nominated for best album, won Irish song of the year (for Bitter Pill's title track). Unlike the album prize, which was decided by critics, this was courtesy of a public vote. No prizes for guessing what I thought of that.

l Some binged on Making A Murderer, but I had another Netflix hit: Love, a whimsical 10-part comedy drama set in LA and starring Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs. I unreservedly recommend this Judd Apatow creation and part of its charm is the brilliant choice of music on the soundtrack: Think the Breeders' 'Do You Love Me?' 'Jet', Wilco's 'I'll Fight', Pete Townshend's 'Save It for Later' and Loudon Wainwright III's 'Therapy'. It also features E, aka Mark Oliver Everett of Eels, in a cameo role of wannabe rockstar, and his scenes are a hoot, not least the one where he and Rust perform a cover of Paul McCartney's 'Jet'.

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