Saturday, October 27, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 451: The Pogues

I really wanted to get this next review written Thursday, but after work, a workout and then some volunteer activity I was knackered, and opted instead for sharing a bottle of wine with Sheila. 

Then I was going to write it Friday night, but got dragged out (willingly) with some coworkers to the pub and once again was in no condition to write creatively.  Contrary to popular depictions of writers scripting their masterpieces while hammered, the truth is you will generally write very poorly if you’ve been drinking.

Now it is Saturday morning and fresh from a shower I think I’m finally ready to put fingers to keyboards before life comes along and tempts me to join in again.

Disc 451 is… If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Artist: The Pogues

Year of Release: 1988

What’s up with the Cover?  The band’s faces pasted into a repeating photo of…some forties guy?  I don’t get this photo.  Whatever is going on it is amazing this is not a ska band.  After all, there are nine of them, which I believe is the average for ska.

How I Came To Know It:  I think like most people who bought this record it was because I heard “Fairytale of New York.”  Great as that song is, I’m even happier that it helped introduce me to the Pogues as a band.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Pogues albums, which is all of the ones that feature Shane McGowan on vocals.  All are excellent in their own way, but since this section is how it stacks up, let’s not equivocate – I’ll put “If I Should Fall…” second.

Rating:  4 stars

I’ve owned “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” for about as long as I’ve owned a CD player, and it has been played again and again over the past twenty five years.  When you’ve had an album a long time it is hard to separate it from your life to the point where you can just discuss the music.

The record was in heavy rotation in the early nineties, when it was one of the few records that my roommate Greg and I both liked.  We are both music lovers, but in the day he liked alternative rock, and I liked folk.  The Pogues sufficiently bridged that gap that it was acceptable to both of us.  Any album that made it into the thin overlap in our Venn diagram of music we both liked was in elite company, and got heavy play around the house.

This is also the album that introduced the Pogues to a larger audience after they had two albums that most people (including me) missed.  I have since come to love those first two albums as much or more as this one, but more on that when I randomly roll them.

“If I Should Fall…” is the most up-tempo of the five Pogues albums I own, with may a rollicking song featuring drinking, carousing and all manner of low-brow entertainment.  Horsetracks are attended, pints are quaffed and quarrelling couples are thrown in the hoosegow to sober up.  It is devilish good fun.

The song about the aforementioned couple, “Fairytale of New York” has gone on to be far and away the Pogues most recognizable song, and a huge hit.  I love it in the same heart-warming but disturbed way I like to watch “Bad Santa” every Christmas.  Of course I like an idyllic stress free Christmas as much as the next guy but artistic depictions of that kind of thing are painfully boring.  “Fairytale of New York” is a duet between Shane MacGowan and guest vocalist Kristy MacColl.  While the words are cause for humour they are also deeply tragic, as they hurl not only all manner of generic insults at one another, but also all the hurtful truths only a long-term partner can draw on.

The record being at least partly folk music, the Pogues include a few traditional numbers, such as the sea shanty “South Australia” and an Irish walking medley, tastefully titled “Medley.”  Also included is a self-indulgent remake of “Worms” – you know, “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,” etc.  It is only a minute long but it is an unnecessary minute, and moreover it added a fifteenth song to the record, which is one more than what I consider reasonable.

The best tracks, however, are Pogues originals.  The band composes music that sounds like punkified folk classics, but are actually modern songs that lean heavily on folk traditions and forms.  If the Clash were a punk band that wished they were playing reggae, then the Pogues are the folk equivalent.  The music is fast, furious and filled with a wide array of instrumentation but never sounds busy, just energetic.  Many heavier bands have tried to do less and still ended up with mud.  To play these songs you have to be tight, and know your instruments.

My favourite song from the day I bought this album is “Turkish Song of the Damned” with its eastern rhythms mixed in with MacGowan’s trademark tortured bawl.  It is a song of shipwreck, and a terrible haunting that follows.  The lyrics set the tone from the outset:

“I come old friend from hell tonight
Across the rotting sea
Nor the nails of the Cross
Nor the blood of Christ
Can bring you help this eve.”

It reads like a Dore wood carving looks and it sounds like every bit the dread curse that it is.

Other songs feature more political topics, as the Pogues take on tough political topics.  In “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” MacGowan’s voice contains a passionate fury as he tells the conviction of six Irishmen for the Birmingham pub bombings in 1975, who would later be acquitted and compensated for wrongful imprisonment.  That wouldn’t happen until 1991, so in 1988 this song was both timely and politically charged, not least because of the controversy that has always swirled around the case.

Lest you think of the Pogues as one-dimensional Irish apologists, the very next song is
Lullaby of London” a slow and forgiving track where MacGowan’s deep love for the city and the Thames flowing through it come to the fore.  This is a song about a drunken walk home from the pub, but it is so much more than that.  It is the heavy thinking that can descend on a man during that long walk, and how the most important of those thoughts will still lay on you the next morning.  It ends with lines that are almost a prayer:

“May the wind that blows from haunted graves
Never bring you misery
May the angels bright
Watch you tonight
And keep you while you sleep.”

And one song later, across the Irish Sea, MacGowan waxes poetic about another river with “The Broad Majestic Shannon” showing that if you’re feeling thoughtful and melancholy there are few better places to let it wash over you than at the edge of a river.  This song ends with a similar expression of goodwill and tearful reminiscing:

“I sat for a while by a gap in the wall
Found a rusty tin can and an old hurley ball
Heard the cards being dealt, and the rosary called
And a fiddle playing Sean Dun na nGall
And the next time I see you we’ll be down at the Greeks
There’ll be whiskey on Sunday and tears on our cheeks
For its stupid to laugh and its useless to blame
About a rusty tin can and an old hurley ball.

“So I walked as day was dawning
Where small birds sang and leaves were falling
Where we once watched the row boats landing
By the broad majestic Shannon.”

MacGowan falls silent and the final bar is just the fiddle track rolling to a beautiful stop, drawing your attention to why you’ve been feeling wistful throughout (a slow fiddle played prettily can do this).  If the record had ended right here, I might have been tempted to give it five stars, but it is just a hair too long, and so it comes close, but falls just short.

Best tracks:  If I Should Fall From Grace With God, Turkish Song of the Damned, Bottle of Smoke, Fairytale of New York, Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six, Lullaby of London, The Broad Majestic Shannon.

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