The Pogues – “Peace and Love” (1989) / The Men They Couldn’t Hang – “Silvertown” (1989)

October 27, 2008 at 10:38 am (Fran Fried, Music, Reviews & Articles)

    

   

Written for the Waterbury Republican – Aug. 13, 1989 — by Fran Fried… 

 

New Album Grows Past the Pogues’ Newfound Popularity

The Pogues have been called everything from a Celtic band to the world’s best punk band. While, on the surface, they’ve purveyed the former over the years and done it well, their spirit has been well-planted in the latter, coming from the angry young streets of dirty old London, where the rebellion of a decade ago hasn’t died; it’s just regrouped or taken different forms.

Thus, keeping in that spirit, it was no surprise that these hell-may-care Englishmen with Irish roots began to grow away from the old sod stuff last year on If I Should Fall From Grace With God, one of this paper’s top 10 of ‘88. And their fourth and latest LP showcases a group which hasn’t let success or popularity get the best of their sense of reason – or stunt their further growth.

They set the tone for the LP with the instrumental opener, “Gridlock.” It’s almost a Part II of the brassy, cosmopolitan, art-deco/Celtic “Metropolis” off the last album, only the roots influences are gone. What we get is bongo fury and jazzy horns wrapped in a hectic swirl and a blaze of activity. Perfect.

But that’s not all that’s different. The group’s becoming more democratic in its old age; for the first time, other band members are speaking up on the vocal and writing ends, lending a bit more welcome variety to the record. Most notable is the work of Terry Woods. His straining desperation on “Young Ned of the Hill” is something not heard from this bunch before, a sharp departure from the time-honored rotgut voice and tongue-in-cheek of Shane MacGowan.

This doesn’t mean they’ve departed the tried-and-true Irish free-for-alls, though – not by a longshot.

“Cotton Fields” shuffles and shimmies on a gravelly MacGowan vocal bed, a sea shanty written on speed, or at least caffeine. “Down All the Days” features stirring instrumentals and emotions on a pop base. The Jem Finer-penned “Night Train to Lorca,” which lets the instruments best express the tinges of sadness, arrives low-key but has the impact of a punch to the midsection. And on “Boat Train” and Woods’ “Gortloney Rats,” there are the dizzying, reeling whirls of fun which were manifested last year on “Bottle of Smoke.” If you can’t get a rise out of these two songs, call a morgue.

There’s one problem, though, and it’s a glaring one, but one that can be easily corrected. For some inexplicable reason, the vocals are muffled, buried in Steve Lillywhite’s mix. MacGowan’s voice, especially on “Misty Morning, Albert Bridge,” “Down All the Days” and “Boat Train,” suffer the most. It’s a testament to the strength of the music and a source of frustration at the same time. It’s not the first time the veteran producer has worked with them (he handled the last album as well, with fine results), so why this happened is a mystery.

“It’s a bit of a grower, this one and it’s a bit more confusing than our other records,” said Woods in the accompanying press release. He’s right. This is a group in transition to who knows what, but wherever they’re going, they’re doing it well.

Meanwhile, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, another mongrel mix of Britons (a Welshman, three Scots and a Yorkie) doing Celtic-rooted music, is also on its fourth album and after a bunch of stop-starts brought on by bad timing, they seem ready to bludgeon their way into your hearts as well.

They probably could have been about as popular now as The Pogues are now were it not for bad timing. Elvis Costello, who produced their first album, was introduced to the band by Pogues’ co-founder Philip Chevron. But all that aside finally, they’ve delivered some quality goods as well and are poised to pounce on America – with the grace of someone, anyone, in the radio industry with a good set of ears.

In all, they’re more straightforward, more overtly political than The Pogues; not as entertainingly fun, but well worth the money you would’ve spent on the next MTV band-to-come-along.

The ever-impassioned singing of Stefan Henry Cush drives the best of this lot along at a fiery pace. You can feel the back of his neck straining and turning red as he puts his all into the two best songs, the angry young football tale “Rosettes” and their immigrant song, “A Place in the Sun,” a nugget packed with adventure (a journey to Marseilles to make a living), hope, desperation and barbed pop.

They also convey well a working-class toughness, almost to the point of stealing some guttural “arrghs” from Van Morrison. Again, passion is the byword on “Rain, Steam & Speed,” as the song churns like a mighty steam engine. “Company Town” straddles gentle balladry, ruggedness and the viciousness of its lash at Margaret Thatcher. And “Lobotomy Gets ‘Em Home!,” their song about Frances Farmer, is hi-test Pogues Celtic cowpunk.

Their bitter passion doesn’t overcome all on their swipe at gentrification, an otherwise average “Blackfriar’s Bridge,” but you know their heart is there. And you realize there’s plenty more hellfire where this record came from. Watch for these guys. They’ll probably prove as durable as their name implies.

Fran Fried

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