Sunday, July 2, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1023: The Pogues

Happy Belated Canada Day! I’ve had a lovely weekend so far, meeting up with an old friend, hanging with my lovely wife, playing some Ultimate and (of course) adding to my music collection. Here are some albums you can expect to hear about in the months and years ahead:
  • Three Secret Sisters albums: their self-titled debut, “Put Your Needle Down” and “You Don’t Own Me Anymore”
  • Joan Shelley’s “Electric Ursa” and “Over and Even”
  • K. Flay, “Everywhere is Somewhere”
  • Dawes, “Nothing is Wrong”
  • Great Big Sea, “The Hard and the Easy”
  • Warren Zevon, “Wanted Dead or Alive”
  • Portugal. The Man, “Woodstock”
OK, from albums I’m just discovering to one that has been in my collection for a very long time.

Disc 1023 is…Rum, Sodomy & the Lash
Artist: The Pogues

Year of Release: 1985

What’s up with the Cover? A take on 19th century artist Theodore Gericault’s famous painting, “The Raft of the Medusa,” except with members of the Pogues edited in. I’ve seen the original painting in the Louvre and it was a moving experience, immersing you in the anguish and dread of the shipwrecked crew. The Pogues would later write a song about the event on their 1990 album “Hell’s Ditch”.

Whether having the Pogues on the raft would have prevented any of the starvation and cannibalism that occurred is unlikely, but at least the music would have been better while you waited around to die.

How I Came To Know It: I knew a couple of Pogues songs from the radio, and I owned “If I Should Fall From Grace with God,” but this particular album was introduced to me by my friend Tony one weekend long ago when I was visiting him in Vancouver.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Pogues’ albums (basically everything they did with Shane MacGowan in the band) and I like them all, but “Rum, Sodomy & the Lash” is the best of them all. Since this is the last Pogues album in my collection, here is a full recap:

  1. Rum, Sodomy & the Lash: 5 stars (reviewed right here)
  2. If I Should Fall From Grace with God: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 451)
  3. Red Roses for Me: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 835)
  4. Hell’s Ditch: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 798)
  5. Peace and Love: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 121)
Ratings: 5 stars

“Rum, Sodomy & the Lash” is a traditional Irish folk album, infused with the rebellious energy of rock and roll. It is a bleak examination of regret and loss which nevertheless inspires your soul by virtue of its unflinchingly honesty.

Roughly half the songs are traditional folk songs, arranged by the Pogues, and the other half are Shane MacGowan originals. These originals stand shoulder to shoulder with some of folk music’s great standards and give away no advantage.

Shane MacGowan is a troubled genius, and he was never more troubled or brilliant than he was on this record. The opening two tracks, “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn” and “The Old Main Drag” explore the underbelly of alcoholism and violence. “Sick Bed of Cuchulainn” gives the knife an extra twist, naming itself after Celtic legend’s greatest hero, and then featuring such non-heroic actions as pissing yourself, catching syphilis and vomiting in a church. All of it is done to a rollicking tune that captures the manic celebration of someone determined to hit rock bottom as quickly as possible.

On “the Old Main Drag” the main character gives blow jobs in alleys for a five dollar bill, all so he can have one more pint at the local pub. These are Irish drinking stories where the song doesn’t end with everyone having a rollicking good time, but instead bleed into the next day, where we find our heroes lying beaten and hung over in the street, waiting to die.

Why the hell would anyone want to listen to stories like these? Because when they are done this beautifully you can’t look away. These are the stories of the street without the filter of propriety. This is what goes on in those alleys you wisely don’t go down after dark. “Rum, Sodomy & the Lash” walks you down there, and tapes your eyes open, “Clockwork Orange” style, to make sure you don’t miss anything.

The playing on the album is exceptional, with every member of the band (and there are a lot) at the top of their game. The songs roll smooth and easy, including two instrumentals (“Wild Cats of Kilkenny” and “A Pistol for Paddy Garcia”) that let you focus exclusively on just how good they are. Both songs are original compositions that mix Irish reels and sea shanties with the mystery of old west trail songs, and play the mixture with the same furious intensity you’d find on a metal album.

MacGowan’s vocals are thick and powerful, and he spits out these tales of woe with the veritas of a man who lives hard and unhealthy. “A Pair of Brown Eyes” opens with:

“One summer evening, drunk to hell
I sat there nearly lifeless”

And MacGowan sings it in a matter-of-fact resignation that tells you it’s nothing new to him. On later records, MacGowan’s slur gets a bit out of hand and he’s hard to understand, but on “Rum, Sodomy & the Lash” his deliver is the perfect mix of drunken bravado and artistic precision. It seems like he’s always about to fall off the beat, but he never does, holding just to the back of it; the perfect counterpoint to the energetic playing of his band mates.

Bassist Cait O’Riordan was still with the band at this point (she left after this record), and provides a brief counterpoint to MacGowan’s bawl with a delightful rendition of “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day.” I know MacGowan is the star of the show, but I’ve always missed the presence of O’Riordan on later Pogues’ records.

On other records I have John McDermott singing “the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and the Irish Descendants singing “Dirty Old Town” and thought they were good, but once I heard the Pogues’ do them on “Rum, Sodomy & the Lash” other versions sound thin and false.

This album has been a big part of my life, and despite having played it hundreds of times, I never tire of it. In fact, every time I’m about to go on holiday (and sometimes when I’m just heading into a weekend) I sing a few lines from “Sally MacLennane”:

“I’m sad to say, I must be on my way
So buy me beer and whiskey ‘cause I’m going far away.
I’d like to think I’ll be returning when I can
To the greatest little boozer and to Sally MacLennane”

And while that’s just me excited to have some time off, it is as good a metaphor for how I feel about the record as well. No matter how far away I go, “Rum, Sodomy & the Lash” is my Sally MacLennane – a great and tragic love I’ll always come back to.

Best tracks: All tracks

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