Terence Caron is a French student living in Dublin for the next few months and contributing to State. We thought it’d be an interesting exercise to get his thoughts on the Choice Music Prize nominee albums, many of which he knew nothing about before arriving in Ireland.
We’re two weeks away from finding out who will be the winner of the Meteor Choice Music Prize for best Irish album of the year at the live event taking place on 8th March at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin. The judges consisting of music media and journalists (from the Sunday Times to Cork’s RED FM), will have to decide between some wide ranging representatives of Irish music. Among the 10 nominees for 2012, not all of them deserve the recognition, so let’s try to separate the wheat from the chaff.
On Passenger, former Damien Rice vocalist Lisa Hannigan confirms she’s a solid songwriter though she sacrifices a bit of her folkish roots for a more pop-driven sound. It’s a shame that her soft and soothing voice gets buried in the mix on tracks like ‘Home’ and ‘A Sail’ but overall it’s a delight to share her moonlight chills (‘Safe Travels’, ‘O’Sleep’ featuring Ray Lamontagne), and pastoral sweet ditties (‘Little Bird’, ‘Passenger’). Her main influences come from across the Atlantic but she keeps traces of traditional Irish folk in her songs augmented by woodwind and brass instrumentation that never feel out of place or forced. It’s an album of bright and gentle melancholy, the kind you’d love to play when the autumn leaves start spiraling on your street, somewhere between Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Emily Barker’s Almanac. Clearly one of the best albums in Irish music in a long time.
Hannigan features on the first track on The Japanese Popstars album Controlling Your Allegiance, also nominated this year. One wouldn’t have easily pictured her on this repetitive and unrewarding record, paddling in big snoring beats and inconsistent melodies. This dumb “bigger the better” philosophy that’s trending these days in mainstream electro and a clumsy sense of build-up that makes you wonder if you’re drunk or if you should be. Why would such respected artists as Robert Smith, Jon Spencer and M83 take interest in joining the dance? I guess they acknowledged the fact that the electronic world will always be dominated by the big-booted hits of David Guetta and Justice so why bother? The “Japstars” as fans calls them- have really nothing new to offer to the electronic landscape today, except headaches and lousy hooks.
BellX1 are undeniably the most popular act on the list with their not-so-new-wave style, following in the footsteps of The Killers. Their commitment to fit into a radio-friendly mould is so apparent it’s almost as if nothing else mattered. On their latest album, Bloodless Coup, they navigate between the usual silly “I’ll never let you down” love songs you could find on any Snow Patrol release (“Velcro”, “Nightwatchmen”), and the “I’m just a normal guy in a crazy world” electro-jelly-pop tunes (“Sugar High”, “4 Minute Mile”). There’s almost something painful in Bloodless Coup as every track is stretched to boredom. Their ability to get the groove going is undeniable occasionally (“Haloumi”) but they’re so obsessed with musical trends that it often becomes ridiculous ( like ‘Safer Than Love’ with its R’n’B and Auto Tuned backing track vocals).
At the opposite end of the musical dial, the experimental heroic post-rock of And So I Watch You From Afar is one of the most exciting things that has emerged from Ireland in the past few years. Their abrasive blend of lightning-speed riffs and unpredictable time signatures makes them a band recognisable in an instant . When they formed in 2005, post-rock was stuck into the same old formula, a boring and uneventful rise and crawl (Mono, This Will Destroy You, From Monument to Masses). They were one of the few acts trying to push the limits and break the rules. On Gangs, their second release, the banda are more explosive and adventurous, going through labyrinths of swirling melodies (‘Think:Breathe:Destroy’) to taking you by the throat and shaking your guts (‘Homes … Samara to Belfast’). Sometimes the over-technical gimmicks and bold momentum can be overwhelming but the fun drawn from listening to their music is nothing but infectious.
It’s pretty unlikely that Dublin weird-electro-pop band (both in real life and on stage) Tieranniesaur will win the contest yet they are the most refreshing band on the list. Nevermind the childish visuals, track titles and lyrics, it’s easy to get trapped by their futile riddles, exotic and tasteful gems like ‘Sketch!’ and ‘Azure Island’. Get together Architecture in Helsinki, CSS and Tune-Yards in the same room for rehearsals, it would probably end up sounding like Tieranniesaur’s self-titled album: a joyful, funky and cute soundtrack for any Lolcat Youtube video. There’s no shame in playing mindless school party music and that’s what this band is all about.
A different kind of school party is happening on We Cut Corners’ debut album, Today I Realised I Could Go Home Backwards, and it’s more about breaking the furniture and painting the walls red. John Duignan and Conall O’Breachain’s schizophrenic-rock shows its teeth and looks for trouble (‘Three People’, ‘Go Easy’) as quick as it turns into haunting blues wrapped with ethereal vocal harmonies (‘A Pirate’s Life’, ‘Dumb Blonde’). Unfortunately, the high-pitched vocals of O’Breachain’s feel often overstated, attempting to sound as raw as the music, and listening to his theatrical outbursts can be more annoying than captivating. In its short brave 27 minutes, the album has too many weak spots to keep your attention although they may translate better live.
Jape has left the exhilarating electro-rock sound of his last album for cosy synth-dance-pop on Ocean of Frequency. If the floating atmospheres of ‘The Oldest Mind” and ‘Internal Machine’ don’t offend anyone, neither do they stay in memory too long. Richie Egan doesn’t really know what he wants so when he brings out the guitars it sounds awkward (‘Scorpio’, ‘Its Shadow Won’t Make Noise’), or at best like cheap Metronomy covers ( ‘Ocean Of Frequency’, ‘Borrowed Time With Peace’). As someone who has proved themselves in the past, Egan tries to expand his musical territory though he fails to bring cohesion and substance to this new direction.
As the number of ‘80s cold-wave inspired bands gets bigger and bigger in the USA’s underground scene (think John Maus, Zola Jesus), Ireland strikes back with Patrick Kelleher And His Cold Dead Hands. The obvious references, from New Order to Depeche Mode don’t overshadow the great sense of melody and hooks nor does the lo-fi production, just dirty enough to feel like you’re listening to the band in a disused factory or at the back of a cave, which is kind of the point right ? ‘Miracle Candle’, ‘Too Many Harsh Words’ and ‘Gouge’ are some really high-quality sinister hits, supported by addictive bouncing bass lines and drum machine grooves, making graveyards shine like dance-floors. Thanks to its strong and bold personality, their second album Golden Syrup is quite a standout amongst the 2011 Irish music releases.
Cashier No.9’s first effort, To The Death Of Fun, attempts to extract the best of the Britpop baggy years (Stone Roses, Charlatans) and America’s folk-rock legends (Crosby Still and Nash, The Byrds). Such a challenge would see any band fall short of proper musical vision. Thankfully these guys are no cover band and cleverly produce enchanting psychedelic jams (‘Good Bye Friend’, ‘Good Human’) with beautiful and grandiose instrumentation (piano, violin, synth, bells …). This first album is a relaxed and gifted piece of revivalist pop: studiously crafted and mastered. Not the most arousing band on the planet but a valuable treasure for the country.
Talking about revivalists, ‘60s pop influenced music veterans Pugwash have used the same recipe since 1999, and it’s starting to smell like a recycling plant. The Olympus Sound is filled with lazy, cheesy rhymes (“Everybody knows our earth is spinning all around the sun, but what can we feel when our hearts’ have been broken”), and threadbare tunes (‘At The Sea’, ‘Fall Down’). It leaves you wondering if this band is forever stuck in a loop of selfish satisfaction. There’s not even one tentative to set the bar higher here, or experiment on any level, try something new. Maybe Pugwash just became an old-fashioned band that keeps putting out music but they certainly don’t need to be rewarded for that.
So if I had to make a prediction for the winner this year, I would pick Lisa Hannigan because Passenger represents a big step in her career, and it’s full of great songs and stories. She’s also the only one on the list carrying Irish music influences in her album, making it a part of her own sound, and she was already been nominated in 2008 but didn’t get the prize. It’s her time to shine.