Listen to this track by Celtic-Rock band from Vancouver with punk rock and pop ingredients stirred around into a delightful brew. It’s the rollicking The Town Pants with my favourite track off of their most recent record Shore Leave, “Trains Not Taken”. The song fits in as perfect contrast to the group’s fun loving and booze-soaked oeuvre , showing that what separates one party band from another is depth and insight at the songwriting stage that give us something to think about between pints.
This song is about being lost in the idea that the present is shaped by hundreds and thousands of miniscule decisions. It’s also about the power of memory, and being tied to those decisions that shaped the past as well, and our lives as a result. That’s a heady brew. Read more
Listen to this song by U2-championed Dubliner roots-rock outfit Hothouse Flowers. It’s their rootsy-soul gem “Don’t Go” as taken from their 1988 debut album People.
When you think 80s music, chances are you’re not thinking of rootsy, R&B-flavoured folk pop. This may or may not explain the reasons why Hothouse Flowers were not a household name in 1988. Yet, Bono from U2, who himself had become reacquainted with American R&B textures in time to put together Rattle and Hum that year, thought enough of this band to sign them to U2’s Mother records.
Perhaps even then, the feeling that pop music had become sterile was enough to create a niche for a band like this one. Hothouse Flowers were made up of former Dublin street musicians. They made music that was immediate and fit to be played live because that’s how you play when you’re a street musician – there is no production, or studio gadgetry to bail you out.
As such, they brought something new to the table when they finally did hit the studio. This is even if that something new was actually hearkening back to something older – the influence of Van Morrison and Tim Buckley that helped to underpin their folky sound.
The group put out a number of albums, and made themselves a modest audience although arguably with diminishing returns from the late 80s to the early 90s. Singer/keyboardist Liam O’Maonlai collaborated with Tim Finn on a side project, and other members guested on the work of others as well. In 2004, they put out a new album, Into Your Heart to critical praise.
Here’s a clip featuring Pope-bating Catholic-Rastafarian Irish songstress Sinéad O’Connor with a 1994 album track “My Darling Child”. The clip also features one very cute kid!
This song is taken from her album Universal Mother, which I think contains some of her best work. Basically, it’s a concept album about motherhood, in all of the forms that it takes including ancient religious images of motherhood, and the political consequences of losing the idea of the Sacred Mother to the diametrically opposed forces of patriarchy. Sounds heavy, right?
Yet I think O’Connor is less strident than one might think on this record. She knows enough to put some of her humanity into it, instead of presenting us with an impersonal, raw feminist polemic. Therefore, the results reveal her passion, which always makes for great art.
This tune is as light and tender as any lullaby, a tribute to her son Jake and easily applied in terms of sentiment to any mother-child relationship. The sanctity of motherhood and the outrage toward the forces that undermine it is a popular theme in O’Connor’s work. And this song outlines what’s at stake.
Even if a lot of people don’t really think of her as the sensitive parent type, at least not before the images of a shaven-headed harridan overshadow the possibility, this side of her is certainly apparent in this song. And as such, we find out what really motivates her to lash out at cultural forces which tear down the relationships between women and their children.
The album was released two years after her unfortunate Saturday Night Live appearance on which she ill-advisedly tore up a picture of the Pope in front of millions of Catholics, many of whom live in New York where the show was broadcast. When booed off stage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert two weeks later at Madison Square Garden and reduced to tears, it was clear to me that O’Connor was not the one-dimensional cultural terrorist she’d been painted as by the media. She was just angry. Many people are angry when it comes to the negative influence of organized religion. But she learned the hard way that when you spit in the face of the powers that be, you often get slapped in the face for your troubles.
The fact she was slapped doesn’t make her wrong, of course – just a bit naïve, maybe. I think when Sinéad O’Connor became a Catholic priest later on in her career (albeit one on her own terms, working in her devotion to Rastfarianism at the same time…), it showed an interesting change in direction. She still got headlines for wacky behaviour, while leveraging a more subtle approach to the problem as she sees it. Instead of screaming her point of view in front of the walls of the citadel, she’s whispering it from inside.
Here’s a clip of Anglo-Celtic folk-punks the Pogues with their lyrically not-safe-for-work reel “Bottle of Smoke” taken from their 1988 album If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Beware of multiple F-bombs, some of which you might actually hear.
Despite the band’s traditional sound, they’re often cited as an example of Irish folk-punk, even if most of the band members had English upbringings, including lead singer Shane MacGowan. The connections to punk of course are more easily justified as MacGowan had come out of the scene in the late 70s, fronting a punk band called the Nipple Erectors,later to be shortened to ‘the Nips’. Besides this literal connection in this particular case, there are a few important connections between punk and traditional folk music in general, which makes MacGowan’s stylistic shift as a songwriter a natural one. The spirit of defiance and the plight of the working classes are certainly common themes, as is the almost non-existent divide between audience and performer. In traditional music, much like punk, everyone was invited to play it, to participate, to sing along, and to keep the tradition alive by doing so. There are other more basic crossovers too, of course. For instance, the original name for this band when it was formed in 1982 was the more confrontational “Pogue Mahone” which in the Irish language roughly translates to “Kiss My Arse”.
The Pogues were unique for the time, making what is essentially traditional music during a time when high-gloss pop tunes were the order of the day. MacGowan’s slurred vocals give the songs real character not to mention the benefits of his talents as a lyricist which made these songs into compact epics. The very fact that this band hit a unique stylistic vein made them sound pretty radical at the time too, which in turn made what they were singing about – depressed communities, hopelessness of the underclasses, love in the face of poverty and drunkeness, etc – into ideas to be taken seriously. Having said this, they didn’t forget to have a good time with it. This band made some truly joyous music, and “Bottle of Smoke” is one of my favourite examples.
The “Bottle of Smoke” here is a racehorse, and the narrator is the down-and-out gambler who finally gets a break. That’s another thing about this band – they knew something about creating characters in their songs, little stories that make you laugh in this case, or cry in other cases. In many of their songs, they achieve both reactions. The sheer attack in the playing is another strength, and although this music shares the energy of punk as well as a similar DIY spirit, it takes some skill to play traditional music, as well as no small level of commitment to putting it across. The Pogues deliver this in spades.
MacGowan’s famous barfly persona eventually overtook him to the point where the band had to oust him by the early 90s. The divide between the songs and the writer became more and more narrow, and his excesses and resultant behaviour made it impossible for them to succeed. The group limped on without him until their break-up in the mid 90s. Yet, MacGowan would rejoin the group more recently for a short tour in 2001.