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Music for 2013

2012 shows Ireland ablast with world-class albumsMichael Mary Murphy 

 

In 2012 Ireland’s thriving – yet unsustainable – indie scene produced many spectacular moments and a lot of inspiring music. It is unsustainable because the market is minuscule and the international passage for career advancement is limited and in many cases limiting. The dreamy notion that YouTube ™ and social media in general represent the democratisation of cultural production needs to be challenged. The idea that ‘anyone can record an album’, ‘anyone can be an internet sensation’ and the most delusional ‘anyone can be discovered’ is just not reality. Gatekeepers retain the power in popular music production.

What makes the Irish indie scene so worthy, so vibrant, so fruitful and so much fun is that it is, in many instances, a labour of love. It is a challenge to the accepted notion that music has to sell in large numbers to matter. Music is being made by and for people who love music. People who don’t need to have their taste validated in the marketplace. And that is a healthy thing.

2013’s music will be shaped by the best of what came before it. Three albums from 2012 –each an album of the year in its own right – point positively to the future of music.

 

Album of the Year: Mini-Album

Girl Band: France 1998

Part of the punk philosophy was:  ‘It was easy – we did it – you can do it!’ . And that was part of its paradox too. Are the most quickly assembled items the most enduring? What does endurance prove anyway? Punk produced a generation of sprinters, who simultaneously wanted the prize, and to reject it. These sprinters splintered the conventional wisdom that one paid one’s dues and waited in line.

This mini-album challenges the same Do-It-Yourself slogan “it was easy – we did it – you can do it!”. The new artisans of the Irish underground quietly proclaim: “It was difficult, we persevered, we produced something of wonder”. And to me that is a far better mantra for turbulent times.

Girl Band’s mini-album ‘France 98’ is a wonderful piece of vinyl. And it is made more significant by the pain-staking, imaginative packaging that surrounds it, and sets it apart. This is a monument to ingenuity. A parcel delivered from a front where the fighting is hand-to-hand: a war waged with paper, paint and string. It’s wrapped in brown paper that evokes the wonder of the postal service, sealed with a knot that ironically says,“I’m free!”.  It is hand stamped (I assume) and personally numbered although, in Orwellian terms, that personal act communicates “I am not a number”.

The name of the label is ‘Any Other City’. Distinctly Dublin in aesthetic, design, execution and sheer doggedness it symbolises the best of the new Ireland. It proves on every level that Dublin is more than any other city. Without wishing to be schmaltzy about it, no other release this year made me feel better about the city I live in.

Girl Band and their song titles could not have emerged from any other city at any other time: ‘Busy at Maths’, ‘That Snake Conor Cusack’ and ‘You’re A Dog.’ These micro-labels with their acts of original artistry  generate tendrils that pull communities together and illuminate isolated moments. This is the most daring, the most darling of artefacts – a pure slab of treasure on the wasteland. More than that, it is a hand-crafted challenge to the standardised play-listed, mass-produced factory production-line mediocrity.

 

Album of the Year: Worldwide

Radiators from Space: Sound City Beat

The most incredible thing about the Radiators is the palpable respect between members of the band. I interviewed three Radiators (separately) recently. The reverence, honesty and sheer joy they evidently find in each other was unmatched in my experience. This camaraderie may explain why they chose to honour the forgotten warriors of original music in Southern Ireland. These were the toilers in obscurity working away from the tan-tastic glare of the showband uniforms. It was a chaotic sub-culture daring to bring colour and the slang-language of rock and roll into the hair-shirted Republic.

Three names stand out in accounts of the early days of rock in the Republic – Horslips, Thin Lizzy and Rory Gallagher. Yet the environment that sustained their early careers was created and maintained by artists no less talented yet often unheralded. To my shame, many of the acts on this homage, respectful yet never constrained by reverence, were new to my ears.

Eamon Carr’s perfectly nuanced reading of Phil Lynott’s piece of composition ‘Dublin’ provides a fitting context for the album. Carr and Lynott’s mastery of both rock and traditional music and the combination of the two proved pivotal in the development of Irish rock. They both understood the power of the avant garde too. So also did Ted Carroll whose pioneering work deepened the fruitful underground railroad linking Ireland with international advances. This album is another testament to how he shaped Irish rock. The Radiators deliver the goods on Rory Gallagher’s Taste song ‘It’s Happened Before, It’ll Happen Again’ and Van Morrison’s theme tune, ‘Gloria’ which stands out on the album. Embodying the wildness of the era in the face of conservatism, Ian Whitcomb and Bluesville’s ‘You Turn Me On’ allows Irish rock to take a deserved bow, ukulele and all.

The Radiators have the ability to place these acts in context. They rescue them from obscurity. This is not just an outstanding collection of songs; it is an unassailably important piece of social history. Anyone wondering how Ireland arrived – after a long and arduous detour – at modernity needs to listen to this. It is hard to think of any Irish band which would construct such a testimony to their forgotten predecessors. It is impossible to think of any Irish band which could do it better.

Liberty lives in the fraternity of artists and citizens enjoying freedom of expression. The Radiators have always been revolutionaries pushing against attenuated pillars; picking the locks on fire-escapes. On this album they release the shackles of creative souls denied the opportunities they deserved. They bring a torch to dusty cellars and dark, damp rehearsal rooms and uncover troves of gold in musicians who never ceded their sovereignty.

Ireland has produced few better documents of the road to freedom. It has never produced one as rewarding to listen to.

 

Album of the Year: The Old Empire

Viv Albertine: The Vermillion Border

One of the lighthouses of the early punk movement was the glorious chaos of The Slits. If they were best known for their song ‘Typical Girls’, only one of those words fitted them. Typical they weren’t. And typical The Vermillion Border isn’t. The Slits didn’t use ‘girl power’ as a slogan for selling merchandise, they lived it. In truth, the way they conducted themselves, their untrammelled triumph in disorder and femininity contributed to their lack of sales. And here Viv Albertine, formerly of The Slits, presents a collection that is challenging, engaging, at times uncomfortably raw, honest, blunt and poetic.

This album embraces, and in a way redefines, the essential elements of punk. It is, at once, disarming and call-to-arming. The list of collaborators hints at a wider ecumenism than the low-Church ethos of punk could accommodate. Guests include members and graduates from The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, Ian Dury’s Blockheads, Pentangle, Cream, Dennis Bovell and Warpaint as well as Slits’ alumni Bruce Smith. While Warpaint’s experimental all-female line-up is traceable to the industry defiance of Albertine’s band The Slits, it is the assortment of willing collaborators that loudest bespeaks Albertine’s wide angle lens.

The overall impression of The Vermillion Border is flowers without romance: a kaleidoscope of wild flowers covering concrete and countryside without boundaries. If it is the best album of the year it is also the saddest album of the year, the rawest album of the year. ‘Don’t Believe’ embraces one of the key themes of the album: that love is a construct, women should not be fooled. Lyrically this continues with songs like ‘I Want More’, ‘Confessions of a MILF’, ‘Hookup Girl’ (with a crystalline message of self-respect) and ‘In Vitro’. If both ‘Becalmed (I Should Have Known)’ and ‘The Madness of Clouds’ contain images of white horses these are not some sweet My Little Ponies. With the pen in Albertine’s fingers these equines sound more likely to trample you than to take the apple from Adam’s hand, submissively.

It is Albertine’s wisdom that makes this album so visceral, so vital. Lesser talents would have produced a shouty album of castration fantasies. Instead the eleven songs here challenge the stereotypes, the accepted myths of how women are, were and should be. Musically the album wanders down the leafy lanes of post-Slits bands like Tallulah Gosh and the Pastels. The spectre of the Jesus and Mary chain with tranquil dissonance stalks ‘Hookup Girl’ whose violent change of tempo shows the artist breaking rules as though she owned them.

The cornerstone of the album is unquestionably ‘Confessions of a MILF’ where designer chic and colour-supplement grandeur are stripped nude by the coldness of   ‘home sweet home’. Like much of the album it is not always easy listening, but it does demonstrate a fearless artist at the peak of her power. It is worth quoting from. It is worth wondering what women artists in 2013 will tread so fearlessly in the path Albertine has pioneered from broken hearts and promises.

No place like home

No faith in my home

No fun in my home

No love in my home

Don’t make me go home

Cos I hate my home

Don’t make me

Don’t hate me

Make me

Hate me

I hate my 

Beautiful clean white pristine

Interior designed architect built

Neat tidy minimal

Shoes off

Home sweet home