Top Twenty Irish Albums Of 2009 (Part 1)
Voice Of The People: Jinx Lennon
By Joe Kavanagh
As we march steadily toward the advent of another year, one can't help feeling that the last days of 2009 bear an uncanny similarity to the closing stages of the year that preceded it.
The deep recession which cast its mighty pall over the previous year, still stalks the globe like a noxious cloud and for all their pedantic proselytizing about green shoots and new dawns, economists and politicians alike seem as baffled as everybody else in terms of telling us when this financial malaise will pass into the annals of history; their predictions seemingly born more from faith than fact.
Previous cycles of economic downturn have often coincided with periods of artistic growth, as the dog days of the 60s, 70s and 80s all gave birth to musical movements such as ska, punk, new wave, grunge and hip hop.
While this year hasn't exactly reinvented the spoke, not to mind the wheel, in artistic terms, Ireland has enjoyed a thoroughly successful musical innings.
While too many music stars in the UK and US are now nothing more than manufactured figments of a marketing manager's imagination, the restricted realities of the Irish music market means that even most of the nation's most successful names are in it for the love, as opposed to any monetary benefit.
While their number may be small and the odds against international success may be long, the vibrancy, variety and integrity of their work is often beyond reproach, so without any further ado and in no particular order, here are my humble choices for the best Irish albums of 2009.
You Can Make Sound
What a strange year it has been for this Dublin four piece. Tired of the music industry grind, founding member, guitarist and co-front man Ronan Yourell, quit the band last February, forcing the remaining members to release a statement afterwards announcing their breakup. Two weeks later, Yourell had a change of heart and the band began work on the follow-up to 2007's hugely popular debut release, In Love With The Detail. A somewhat different animal than its predecessor, You Can Make Sound nonetheless retains many of the characteristics and influences that make Delorentos such an engaging act. Like all good second albums, it builds on the sonic palate of their debut, as their sound moves from a Strokes/Smiths fusion into something more distinctly their own, with fantastic tracks such as S.E.C.R.E.T. and Leave Me Alone being as good as anything they have ever committed to tape.
In a period where musical acts are increasingly cross-pollinating into some kind of homogenous, bland soup, Jinx Lennon stands defiant, a man driven by a higher calling and a freakish ability for inventiveness. A gripping mixture Mark E. Smith/John Cooper Clark/ Phillip Larkin and a host of other left-field poets, he remains a distinctly Irish entity, so divergent as to make him utterly unique which is no small feat in a world where everyone would like to think themselves different. His fourth album is certainly his most musically accomplished to date, adding a touch of electronica to the folk-influenced balladeering, for which he is renowned. Turning his acerbic wit and fierce intellectual gaze toward the state of modern Ireland and the greater materialistic world she inhabits, he has created an album that shines a mirror on the fakery of our foolish pursuits. All the while, he remains self-effacing, cerebral and starkly original on an album that offers further proof of one of the country's finest unsung talents. Long may he rant.
Trauma Times, Idiot Themes
If the obstacle encountered by Delorentos amounted to a mere speed bump in their career, then Alphastates was more akin to a black hole, almost erasing the band from the musical landscape. Exploding onto the scene in 2004, with the excellent Made From Sand, the band's union of electronica and guitar rock ala Grandaddy/Flaming Lips, was positively prescient and critics eagerly waited for a follow-up. And waited. Personnel changes, fastidiousness and the fact that lead singer Catherine Dowling, lost her voice for almost two years, saw rumors of the album's impending release put on hold so many times that most figured that we had seen the last of them. Thankfully that was not the case, as the band has returned with a beautifully realized album blessed with poise, depth and confidence. Using the tactic of mixing uplifting electronic-driven music with occasionally dark lyrics, Alphastates has created a highly imaginative work, which calls to mind names like Dollshead, Goldfrapp and The Knife, without ever being ersatz. Packed with irrepressible tunes like Champagne Glass and You Talked I Can Tell, it is strong from start to finish and puts Alphastates at the very top of the Irish music chain once again.
Dark Room Notes
We Love You Dark Matter
As the axiom goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and despite the obvious pressures and temptation to put out their debut album after a pair of hotly celebrated EPs, this four-piece held firm until they were ready to release on their own terms. The decision proved a wise one as they announced their arrival to the world above the Irish underground with an excellent record that takes its influences from acts such as New Order, Depeche Mode and more idiosyncratic artists such as Yo La Tengo. Groovy, danceable and at times imbued with something of the night, the album retains a noticeably organic flavor despite its electronic leanings. Tracks like This Hot Heat, Shake My Ceiling and the outstanding Love Like Nicotine, display the kind of ingenuity too often missing among many Irish acts, leading to a work that holds up well to scrutiny in the international music media. Further proof of their potential was realized in October when the band signed with German/UK label BBE, who will release the album worldwide in 2010.
From the highs of being held up as one of the most absorbing artists on the global music scene at the turn of the millennium, to a decade that has been cruel and kind in virtually equal measure, David Kitt's career path reads like some graph on the stock exchange. Unlike its financial equivalent however, his stock has been rising steadily for some time now with the release of a series of progressively impressive albums, a trend compounded by his seventh - and for me - most accomplished work. Free of the pressures and expectations of a major label deal, he is perhaps not coincidentally at his most innovative with tracks like the sun-drenched It's Yours, floor-filling Alone Like That and if there was a more beguiling ballad in Irish rock last year than Learning How To Say Goodbye, then I haven't heard it. A wonderfully accessible, soulful album and verification of a man who is too often forgotten when it comes time to discussing Ireland's most talented songwriters.
Live At The Museum
Direct from the Dublin underground, Groom served notice of their intent with this gloriously untidy, unaffected album. Upon first listen, I was tempted to draw comparisons to acts such as Grandaddy, Yeasayer or even more obscure acts from the US underground circa 1990, but I've now come to the conclusion that their musical lineage draws more direct links with the psychedelic legacy left by The Doors, Small Faces, Syd Barret and The Kinks. Quirky without ever being pretentious, the album is a cohesive collection of counter melodies, charming harmonies and provocatively imaginative hooks, which results in a ragtag character delicately balanced between synchronicity and imminent collapse. The band's motto is "Indie pop minus everything that Indiepop should be" and Live At The Museum does exactly what is says on the tin.
Back To His Very Best: David Kitt
Jerry Fish & The Mudbug Club
The Beautiful Untrue
One of the most charismatic individuals thrown up in the history of Irish rock music, Jerry Fish (a.k.a. Ger Whelan) has managed to front two of the most distinguished acts that the island has ever produced, made all the more remarkable by their incredibly diverse theater of operations. As the front man of An Emotional Fish, he enjoyed success on a global scale but his persona was such that he appeared under duress and uncomfortable with the fame foisted upon him. Not so as the architect of his own second act, returned as the joyous front man of a jazzy, funky, uber-cool swing band, which he describes as ""indie lounge lizard schmooze, mariachi swampadelica". Others have described it as "genius" and his second album certainly attests to that fact, oozing appeal, chic and resplendently self-assured, it is both soulful and armed with more contemporary crossover appeal than any New Orleans-inspired jazz album by an Irishman has any right to have. Outstanding stuff.
Model, scholar, actress, multi-instrumentalist and possibly a superhero in her spare time, Julie Feeney is that rarest of creatures, a preternaturally talented overachiever, the type of individual that most of us mere mortals love to hate, unless of course - as in her case - they are so nice to go along with their talents that they rob us of this token act of resistance. Arriving on the Irish and international music scene four years ago with her debut album 13 Songs, the Galway singer/composer was fêted by everyone from the notoriously ornery UK music media to the New York Times, and even went on to win the inaugural Choice Music Prize, which is essentially Ireland's answer to the Mercury Music Prize. This year saw her make her long-awaited return with self-produced sophomore effort Pages, an impeccably fulfilled melding of contemporary musical sensibilities with orchestral tradition. Resoundingly ambitious it offers a deeply alluring and ethereal take on pop music, with tracks like Impossibly Beautiful, Stay and Love Is A Tricky Thing standing on the precipice of musical brilliance. Routinely compared to Bjork and Kate Bush, one gets the impression that such associations are drawn more out of convenience due the strength of her vision, the depth of her talent and the singularity of her purpose, rather than any meaningful musical comparison. Such exceptional uniqueness, by its very definition, defies comparison.
London-based Wexford singer Wallis Bird has been something of darling to critics all across Europe since the release of her debut album Spoons, in 2007, but it wasn't until her plucky acoustic cover of Depeche Mode's Just Can't Get Enough was used in a promotional campaign by UK tabloid The Sun that her profile emerged into the mainstream. Like many of the other artists on this list, her second effort is an exercise in progression as she incorporates a whole host of new sonic tricks on a work that is as effervescent as it is charming. Slipping effortlessly between folk and upbeat indie, the tracks often employ unorthodox time signatures, off kilter melodies and peculiar harmonies, to gratifying effect. While comparisons with Fiona Apple and Anne DiFranco are entirely appropriate, the longer Wallis Bird's career goes on, the more she will undoubtedly carve out her own piece of distinct musical real estate.
I'll Wait For Sound
This Dublin four-piece represent yet another artist on this list making nonsense of the notion of the so-called "difficult second album", as they return with the follow-up to their excellent 2006 debut, We Thrive In Big Cities. Working with LA-based producer Brad Wood, the band have added several pounds of muscle to their taut indie pop frame, to excellent effect, infusing their sound with a certain ruggedness as they climb outside the sonic confines of their earlier work. Unlike other acts who have attempted the same trick, Director have managed to stay true to themselves, due to Michael Moloney's distinctive vocals and their ongoing ability to craft a song with enough hooks to catch a shoal of fish from a speedboat. Tracks like Play Pretend, I'll Wait For Sound and terrific closer, Can't Go Home, are packed with creativity, guile and the type of ambition capable of making an impact far beyond the shores of a little rock on the eastern edge of the Atlantic.
Continues Next Week...