Sunday 25 February 2018

Towers of song: our finest troubadours

Damien Rice's slow burning album, 'My Favourite Faded Fantasy' might be his best album to date.
Damien Rice's slow burning album, 'My Favourite Faded Fantasy' might be his best album to date.

Glen Hansard's fine new album got me thinking about singer-songwriters and how we Irish tend to punch above our weight when it comes to producing them.

From Paul Brady to David Kitt and Christy Moore to Villagers' Conor O'Brien, the history of Irish song is full of names whose verse and music has captured a time, a place, a feeling. Some were robbed of life too soon, like Luke Kelly and Mic Christopher, others show no sign of stopping: 70-year-old Van Morrison still writes, although his songs are not as special as they once were.

But not every guy - and it's usually a bloke brandishing a battered acoustic guitar - is capable of delivering the sort of well-crafted tunes that Hansard and those mentioned above seem able to knock out on a whim. Some of the more hyped figures in recent years tend to be on the homogeneous side: I'm looking at you, Jamie Lawson. And I worry that Gavin James might be in danger of squandering his talent in an effort to be the next Ed Sheeran. Let's be under no illusion here: popular though he undoubtedly is, carrot-topped Ed - who's been adopted by the Irish - is far from being a truly great singer-songwriter.

Who are the best Irish ones plying their trade today? Well, there's Hansard certainly, although his previous album (and solo debut) Rhythm and Repose is a stronger, more consistently rewarding offering than his new one, and there's Damien Rice, who returned after an eight-year hiatus 12 months ago with a slow-burning album, My Favourite Faded Fantasy, that didn't quite get its due at the time. Listened to anew and it just might be his best album to date - centre-piece song 'Trusty and True' sounds as though it was fashioned, at least in part, by Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly.

But when it comes to Irish singer-songwriters, I find myself especially drawn to those who favour a largely acoustic approach and sing in their own accents. Damien Dempsey has never been tempted to temper his rich Dublin brogue in order, perhaps, to improve his chance of international airplay and his unashamedly Irish, and Dublin, songs are all the better for it.

It's a similar story with Mick Flannery, whose gravelly vocal invites comparisons with such towers of song as Tom Waits, but whose delivery is Leeside through and through. It's one of the great mysteries how a troubadour as fine as he is, is not more widely known, especially when you think of what a captivating presence he is in the live arena. I know of few songwriters capable of stilling chatter with a few guitar notes as effectively as the Clare-based Corkonian.

Lisa O'Neill is yet another who demonstrates the wide geographical spread of Ireland's most gifted songsmiths. Cavan born and raised, the songs on her striking second album Some Cloth or Not are flecked with borderland memories and elongated vowels.

She played Dun Laoghaire's Pavillion Theatre last night as part of Culture Night 2015, and is at work on a new album. Incidentally, O'Neill supported Glen Hansard on a recent Australian tour and her singular delivery attracted very positive notices, including this from Time Out Sydney: "A folk artist with a voice that's haunting and broken and big and lilting all at once, O'Neill makes pain sound pretty damn amazing."

Another female songsmith, and far better known than O'Neill, is Lisa Hannigan whose two solo albums to date should be required listening for those who like their music to come with a good whack of emotional power. Her last album, Passenger, feature confessional writing par excellence: just listen to the heartbreaking 'Little Bird' - it's as lovely and delicate as its title indicates.

Aficionados, meanwhile, are in for a treat tomorrow evening when Dublin's National Concert Hall hosts a tribute night to the granddaddy of singer-songwriters, Pete Seeger.

Curated by Sam Amidon and with musical direction from Thomas Bartlett (both of whom play significant roles on Glen Hansard's new album), those reinterpreting Seeger's folk classics include the aforementioned O'Neill, Bell X1's Paul Noonan, Altan's Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and veteran Northern Irish songwriter Tommy Sands.

The Seeger Tribute Night is part of the Concert Hall's Tradition Now festival which takes place this weekend in such venues as the 'Pepper Canister' Church and the University Church, St Stephen's Green.

* Rock memoirs are churned out like link sausages, but the past 18 months or so has seen a batch of really good ones, and all written by females of an older vintage.

First there was Viv Albertine of The Slits whose Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys lifts the lid on the life of one of punk's great survivors and offers a refreshing alternative to the largely male-driven account of one of music's most fertile ever periods.

Then there's Kim Gordon's Girl In A Band, which takes a warts-and-all look at life in Sonic Youth and the breakdown of her marriage to the band's frontman Thurston Moore. It never reads like a scorned woman settling scores, although it can't have made for pleasant reading for Moore.

And now, The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde has delivered an extraordinarily candid autobiography. Reckless is an aptly titled book that takes an unflinching look at a life lived very close to the edge. It's certainly provocative - not least because of her much publicised (and criticised) account of 'inviting' sexual assault when she was just 21 - but it also offers a fly-on-the-wall account of The Pretenders' modus operandi when it came to songwriting.

It's really well written which, perhaps, shouldn't come as a surprise when one bears in mind that Hynde used to be a journalist for the NME back in the day.

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