So much music, so little talent
We're constantly told this is a golden age in Irish music - but forget the hype ...there's practically nothing to get excited about, says rock critic John Meagher
I met an English musician some time ago who gave serious thought to moving to Dublin. He was under the impression that it was a great city in which to be a singer-songwriter. We Irish were a kind bunch who liked nothing better than sitting in a smokeless pub, sipping our Guinness while listening to some bloke pick at an acoustic guitar and tunelessly singing about losing his girlfriend. London audiences, he suggested, aren't quite as forgiving.
Too right, mate. The problem with the Irish is that we're not a nation of complainers. Many of us will listen to just about any old guff and buy the albums while we're at it. It might explain how the hideous racket served up by Declan O'Rourke has charted so highly and why Paddy Casey's Junior Cert lyrics have found such a large audience. It's Irish so it must be good, right? Wrong.
The common perception - pushed by the record industry and a subservient media - is that we're experiencing a golden era in Irish music. And if you're particularly naive you'll have bought the line that the Hard Working Class Heroes festival - happening in Dublin this weekend - will be a glorious showcase for musical talent in this country. The intentions of the organisers can't be faulted, but it's likely to be all chaff and no wheat. The aforementioned Casey is one of the 'big names' playing at the event, for heaven's sake.
U2 may be making millions and playing to millions on their marathon world tour, but things have rarely been so glum on the domestic music front. And it's not just the awful raggle-taggle of singer-songwriters who are delivering such insipid and uninteresting music. Rock bands - the lifeblood of any music scene - are doling out fare that veers from bland to wretched.
I'm tired of going to see bands with nothing to say and who seem to be embarrassed about being on stage. Nearly all of them feel they have to dole out monologues to us a la Glen Hansard of The Frames, a man who most local critics agree is a pain in the posterior. And would somebody tell Ollie Cole of Turn to return to the day job?
I often wonder what I've done to deserve this life when I find myself at Dublin's Sugar Club on Friday nights. It's a lovely venue, but with any band able to hire the place to put on their show, you can be privy to some dreadful rubbish. A few weeks back I ventured there with a friend to catch a three-piece called Stoat. It was terrible sub-Electric Six stuff with nonsense lyrics and erratic musicianship. When I pointed this out on a radio station the next day, one of the guys in the band took offence. He seemed to be under the mistaken impression that local journalists should give local acts an easy ride. Not this one, Cormac.
As music critic with this paper, I'm exposed to a lot of local music. Very little makes it to my iPod. The best Irish album of the year so far? Hal's eponymous debut. It's a sweet, melodious work. In truth, though, it's very hard to be passionate about a band who write songs with titles like What A Lovely Dance and I Sat Down.
I also enjoyed albums by Joe Chester, Emmett Tinley, Cane 141, Jimmy Behan and the soon-to-be released albums by former A House frontman Dave Couse and Pugwash. They're all good albums, but are any of them good enough to be nominated for the Mercury Music Prize? Not one of them. None has that spark of brilliance that puts it alongside nominees such as Antony and the Johnsons or The Magic Numbers.
Every week, I receive at least 10 demos from Irish acts. I'd be lying if I said I've listened to all of them, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the demos that made me sit up and take notice. I'm the first to slag off record company A&R personnel but I sure as hell don't envy their job. And I'd really love it if Hugh from Monaghan would stop ringing me every Friday about his Kraftwerk-meets-Iron Maiden outfit. Go and bug some other journalist, please.
Then there are the new acts that have a bit of live experience under their belts but whose work to date remains patchy at best. Jove, Delorentos, Tadhg Cooke and Larry Beau are promising, but still seem to be struggling to find their feet. Porn Trauma are too much in thrall to Kings of Leon while Ham Sandwich should really change their name.
And what about female musicians. Is anybody likely to follow in the footsteps of the overrated Gemma Hayes? The UK-based Dubliner Cathy Davey is very talented - far more so than Hayes - but she failed to find an audience for her fine debut Something Ilk. It's hard to see the likes of Jenny Lindfors or Grainne Brookfield making much impression. As for all-girl rock band Fair Verona, they look better than they sound.
Yes, it's been an annus horribilis for Irish music and there are precious few releases before year-end to look forward to. I like The Chalets' live show and they have an album out next month which I have yet to hear. I worry that they are a triumph of style over substance, though.
And Bell X1, who have promised so much in recent years, release their third album in October. They remain the band most likely to do a Snow Patrol but they have made some catastrophic decisions in the past about what songs to release as singles.. They need to learn from those mistakes, otherwise Island Records may wonder if it's worth keeping them on the roster.
Perhaps we get the music we deserve. After all, more than half a million of us tuned into the dreadful Celebrity You're A Star - to hear a bunch of jumped-up nonentities sing badly.
Maybe Hard Working Class Heroes will unearth Ireland's answer to The Arcade Fire - the Canadian band who have released 2005's finest album - and I will have to eat my words. I doubt it, somehow.
Hard Working Class Heroes runs from tomorrow until Sunday, with 100 acts performing in six Dublin venues.
Are we really lost in music?
Angela Dorgan, organiser
Hard Working Class Heroes festival
"I don't think it's fair to say that Irish bands don't box well even in their own weight category. It is too subjective to say there are no good bands from Ireland. Iain Archer puts goosebumps on my arm, the Frank and Walters make me dance for three hours in a row, Delorentos make me think I'm 17 again and 8 Ball could be the backing track for a BBQ anywhere in the world. The indie industry has never been healthier, the opportunities here are in the hands of the artist more than any other industry. Per capita, we have more successes. That's something to be celebrated and not dismissed."
Irish Independent columnist
"A golden era for Irish music? What a joke. The success of The Frames and Paddy Casey is a triumph of persistence and mediocrity over pure talent and inspiration. With the exception of a few honourable exceptions, the self-congratulatory nature of the scene is grotesque. Just look at the party line spouted every fortnight by Hot Press with its insistence that we're a great little country with great musicians. We're going through a very lean time and anybody who uses their two ears properly will acknowledge that."
Music industry publicist
"There is a lot of talent out there but many acts don't get a chance to develop because the bar is not set high enough in Ireland. There's enormous competition in the UK and that pushes the standard up. Here, everything seems to rise to the top - good and bad. As it's a small country there is a limited live circuit so bands don't get to play live often enough to hone their sound or to make enough money to be full-time musicians. It's interesting that some of the best Irish acts of recent times have worked on their craft in the UK first. And the lot of local outfits are not helped by the fact that the press and media here tend to be conservative and unwilling to take chances with emerging local acts."