Though most of their efforts remain under the radar, you can pinpoint Dexys as being an example that having a creative career bolstered by one inexplicable hit need not be an albatross around your neck. It’s more than most bands manage in a lifetime, after all, and after enough time has passed, it can even have a part in lifting the stifling weight of expectation. If Kevin Rowland has no interest in replicating the success of ‘Come On Eileen’, then surely he can do anything he pleases.
Which is exactly what he has done with Let The Record Show.., a collection of Irish and soul standards he has wanted to do since 1985. The press release’s insistence that the collection not be seen as a “covers album” may read as standoffish initially, but ties into a tradition not often seen in popular music – an album-length treatise of a band’s influences wrapped into their own style. We don’t think of early Frank Sinatra or Beatles as being cover albums, they’re as significant a contribution to the canon as anything else. It’s clear Dexys hold similar ambitions, whether it works is another story.
Apart from the introduction ‘Women of Ireland’, the band avoid using instrumentation tied intimately to the cliché we all have in our minds when we think of traditional Irish music, to further enhance the idea that the Dexys personality will not be diluted by the fact that the songs aren’t “theirs”, so to speak. Arrangements have been changed, tempos slowed and sped up, certain lines emphasised. ‘Carrickfergus’, already a contemplative tune, is rendered no less pensive with the addition of drums and Rowland’s distinctive drawling voice. It’s one of the few moments on the album where the somnambulant air works to their benefit.
To admonish this album for not ascribing to styles it clearly has no interest in living up to would be a monumental waste of time, rivalled in its pointlessness only by unrequited love and having arguments in YouTube comment sections. But there’s a sense of missed opportunities here. For all their talk of investing the spirit and character of their nearly forty year career into old classics, is there really anything to mark out the version of Johnny Cash’s ’40 Shades of Green’ found here as being particularly exceptional? The production is oddly flat, and the vocal performance feels like a talented student going through the motions dictated by their teacher at a Transition Year concert. There’s more spirit to be found in Daniel O’Donnell’s bargain basement version, and that has a backing track not unlike that found coming out of a 50 year old speaker in a rural pub. Even the more lively moments such as ‘Grazing In The Grass’ feels perfunctory.
The band has stated that they do not intend to tour behind Let The Record Show.., which is a curious decision. These songs, more than many types of music, are intended to be shared to a rapturous audience. The addition of performance could be just what these arrangements need to add the extra oomph the recording sorely lacks. For a band who in their best moments were defiantly idiosyncratic and iconoclastic, to see them handle these songs with such gentle kid gloves is disappointing.