Monday, January 10, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1531: The Popes

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey, where since 2009 I have been reviewing every CD in my collection, never stopping until I’m done. For rules on how this works, see the sidebar. For the latest entry, just keep reading.

Disc 1531 is….  Outlaw Heaven

Artist: The Popes (featuring Shane MacGowan)

Year of Release: 2009

What’s up with the Cover? Death rides a pale horse. In this case, it appears that death may have acquired his pale horse from this cowboy. Having taken the soul of some cowboy who was out riding death realizes, “hey, this is a quality horse,” and decided to keep it.

Or maybe the reverse is true, and this guy is a horse thief, and he has just realized to his horror he has just stolen from the wrong entity as death leaps up behind him with a bone-rattling “surprise!” and then scythes his soul out of his body and takes the reins.

Or maybe there’s no conflict at all, just someone being neighbourly. Like Death has lost his pale horse and this cowboy is giving him a lift to his next appointment to harvest souls.

How I Came To Know It: I saw this in a bargain bin at now-closed local record store Lyle’s Place many years ago. I had a record by Shane MacGowan and the Popes already and assumed this was another of their records I just hadn’t heard of. Which was only partially true, as it turns out.

How It Stacks Up: I have three studio albums by the Popes, and one ‘best of’ compilation. ‘Best Of” records don’t stack up, but of the three studio records, “Outlaw Heaven” finishes a distant third. Sorry, Popes.

Ratings: 2 stars

When Shane MacGowan left the Pogues he formed a band called “the Popes” who put out a few killer records in the mid-nineties with a similar Celtic folk/rock bent. “Outlaw Heaven” is not one of these albums.

Instead, this is a later version of the band, two iterations removed from the glory days with MacGowan. I was initially confused by this, buying it on the assumption one Popes album is much like another. When the singing began, I wondered why Shane MacGowan sounded so raspy. It was like he was trying to impersonate Bruce Springsteen, or if maybe his vocals had just changed over the years, like later Leonard Cohen. He also sounded suspiciously sober and easy to understand.

All of this was because it wasn’t Shane MacGowan at all, but Popes band leader and front man Paul “Maddog” McGuinness. The album cover notes that it will “feature” Shane MacGowan, but in this case that means he brings guest vocals to three of the 13 tracks only. This is not strictly false advertising, but it does smack a bit of dubious marketing.

Anyway, back to the Popes as they appear here. McGuinness is a fine enough singer, although don’t expect MacGowan’s trademark bawl. Maddog is more of a Joe Cocker style belter, crossed with classic rock and roll. The record has a number of songs that have that classic rock feel. Unfortunately, it is less “inspires a stadium of thousands” and more “bar band in the background” level stuff.

Negatively reinforcing this feel are a number of songs that start out with promise but end with repetitive riffs that go on far too long. The title track is the worst offender, which just cycles around as the band names various (now dead) musical influences. There are plenty of these songs that feel like the Popes weren’t sure how they wanted them to end. I assume they all looked around the studio at each other until someone finally offered the vague notion of “rocking out” and everyone nodded.

This record has the lyrical sway of earlier Popes records, but without quite enough sway, and the Celtic rock fury of the Dropkick Murphys, but without quite enough fury. The musicianship is fine, but the production doesn’t let anything stand out strongly.

In the end, “Outlaw Heaven” wasn’t terrible, it was just OK in a boring kind of way. I would be fine hearing it in the background while I’m having brunch, but I’m never going to put this record on in place of any number of records (including other Popes records) that fill the same musical niche in my collection.

And so, even as the cowboy on the cover shuffles off his mortal coil, I will shuffle this record out of my collection. And it won’t be one of those tender farewells where I gush and tearfully hope it finds love somewhere else. More of a cordial handshake and a “see ya around”.

Best tracks: Let the Bells Ring Out

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