Your days and nights at college or university will undoubtedly be ones of new experiences and challenges. For many of you it will be a time of change, experimentation and new found independence. Individual songs (and indeed whole albums) will inevitably form part of your college soundscape over the next few years. Researchers have long examined the emotional bonds we form with specific songs and the importance of fan relationships with bands and individual performers.
This year’s suggested listening combines the old and the new. Ranging from new releases from Damien Dempsey, The XX and Laura Marling. It also features Savages’ second album ‘Adore Life’ and the award-winning Rusangano Family. I have included the 40th Anniversary Edition of first ever Irish punk album ‘TV Tubeheart’ by The Radiators from Space. Top of the list is ‘New Facts Emerge’ – the 32nd album released by the mighty Manchester band The Fall. Happy Listening!
1. Damien Dempsey – Soulsun
Now a bona fide “national treasure”, Damien Dempsey consistently makes albums that challenge and inspire. The follow-up to last year’s 1916-inspired collection No Force On Earth is a collection of duets with top notch female vocalists (or as the singer eloquently puts it, “The Mighty Celtic Warrior High Queens”). Recorded in London with long-time producer John Reynolds, it is vintage Dempsey in terms of the songwriting approach, with the odd experimental sonic flourish.
Wistful, pastoral and suitably mellow, ‘Beside The Sea’ is a duet with – of all people – Dido. It’s a blissfully laid-back affair, with the two voices blending beautifully. Even better is ‘Big Big Love’, performed with another Dublin vocal powerhouse, Imelda May. A Stax/Motown style nunber, it’s the standout moment on Soulsun. Elsewhere, the title track is a characteristically epic tune; while the incendiary rocker ‘Pretty Bird Tree’ – sung with Pauline Scanlon – has echoes of Tom Joad-era Springsteen.
An inveterate social justice campaigner, Dempsey has long explored the lives of the marginalised and down-trodden, an approach he continues on this record.
Over a splashy keyboard riff, ‘Soft Rain’ finds Dempsey embarking on a lyrical trip around Dublin: he eventually arrives at “old Marlborough Street”, where he encounters “The big gang with the rotten teeth/ who will spend their days in a haze/ hunting powders and potions.” It’s a powerful exploration of the problems of the inner city – a subject dear to Dempsey’s heart. Overall, Soulsun is one of the singer’s strongest outings yet – and could significantly swell his already sizeable fanbase.
2. Laura Marling – Semper Femina
Laura Marling has used conversations surrounding her sixth album, Semper Femina, to disavow music of “innocent creativity”—the kind that’s “not pointed, not political,” she says. It’s an intuitive concept that sounds relatively novel coming from this folk songwriter. In the late 2000s, Marling emerged from London’s Communion scene, a coterie of authenticity fetishists who wore wounded hearts on tweed-jacket sleeves. Marling was herself embroiled in “innocent creativity,” but she released masterpieces of the form. Her identity evolved from romantic pragmatist to underdog sage to mystic troubadour; her voice became distant and supercilious, baring just enough soul to reassure you one was there. Radical honesty is now common among young songwriters, but Marling can harbor guilt, fear, arrogance, deceit, or triumph in a bottomless deadpan. It’s easy to invest in her evasion.
Semper Femina—Latin for “Always a woman,” and taken from Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid—is no revolutionary screed. But the album’s characters, who are all given female pronouns, tiptoe outside Marling’s world of heartbreak and personal redemption. There are signs of a broader project at play. With lyrics about “warning signs” that we’re conditioned to “ignore diligently,” “Next Time” appears to preach a maternal fondness for Mother Earth: “I can no longer close my eyes/While the world around me dies/At the hands/Of folks/Like me,” she trills. While her composure hasn’t wavered since 2010’s I Speak Because I Can, there’s something new in songs like “Next Time” and “Don’t Pass Me By.” Both remind me, in their reserve and understated melancholy, of mid-career Elliott Smith—a chaotic and vulnerable individual anchored by a preternatural understanding of melody, using compassion to navigate horror.
3. Rusangano Family – Let the Dead Bury the Dead
An album where questions about identity, equality and diversity loom large, Let The Dead Bury The Dead is an album which feels more 2016 than other Irish release around at present. Members of immigrant families from Zimbabwe and Togo respectively, God Knows and Murli trade lines, yarns and stories about what it’s like to arrive in a new land and feel out of place.
More pertinently, they also deal with the identity crisis of feeling just as out of place in the traditional settings of their family home because of trying to fit in and adjust to new surroundings.
As producer, Lillis has found a sweet spot where the funk of the sounds and the samples is perfectly calibrated for the heft of what the MCs have to say. On Kierkegaard, Love In A Time Of War and Surviving the Times, God Knows and Murli deliver beautifully turned out rhymes about the personal and the universal. Their flow is razor-sharp, the words hitting the spot again and again. As state of the nation addresses go about the state of this particular nation after the wreaths have been laid and the speeches made, it’s quite a belter.
4. Savages – Adore Life
Adore Life arrives, audibly the work of a band making efforts to outrun their initial influences and trying to find a path beyond a debut that seemed so fully formed – image, sound and manifesto all neatly worked out – that it was hard to imagine how they might develop it further without tumbling into self-parody. The guitars are still serrated, but Adore Life feels looser and slightly more relaxed than its predecessor. The listener feels a little less like every song is being screamed at them, an inch and a half away from their face. The mood is, well, moodier. The lyrics are less ascetic, immersed as they mostly are in the vagaries of love and relationships. “Hit me, hit me with your hands,” ran Silence Yourself’s austere paean to sadomasochism.
Adore Life’s closing Mechanics deals with the same subject in more elevated terms: “When I take a man to sleep over, pain and pleasure will touch my hand and I will hold what is untold.” There’s even the occasional splash of dry humour, a commodity in pretty scarce supply on Silence Yourself. Above a musical backdrop in which a jagged bassline suddenly, thrillingly, shifts into something informed by warp-speed hardcore punk, TIWYG’s lyrical hook is a parody of Radiohead’s Karma Police, a song about enervated, eye-rolling despair, its defeated “tsk-typical” mood the opposite to the galvanising one Savages clearly want to conjure. The sound of I Need Something New suggests they’re going to have to run a bit faster if they’re going to escape the shock-haired shadow of Siouxsie, but the lyric is genuinely funny, depicting the singer so bored while in the throes of sexual congress that a draught from an unclosed door feels like a diverting novelty.
5. The Fall – New Facts Emerge
The Fall is a band that exists without precedent. For 40 years, they have remained the chief creative output for the mercurial and often combative vocalist/songwriter Mark E. Smith, and in that time, the Fall have fulfilled the promise of the post-punk movement that they emerged from. The project continues to move forward with an almost cavalier disregard for their past accomplishments. A look at recent setlists from the band’s live performances show that, in spite of a rich and varied discography, the oldest original material that Smith and the current incarnation of the Fall will deign to play are songs from their 2007 album Reformation Post TLC.
With the band’s contemporaries like Peter Hook and the Buzzcocks content to while away their careers reliving former glories, the Fall’s indifference to the sound that made them known is almost admirable. But it does put the band’s recent material—like their new album, New Facts Emerge—at something of a disadvantage, because anyone discovering the Fall through this or other recent releases might rightfully wonder what all the fuss is about.
What truth remains in John Peel’s oft-repeated comment about his favorite band (“They are always different; they are always the same”) is Smith’s love of sound. Not just the noise that a great rock group can make, but the possibilities available in the recording process. As co-producer of Emerge (with Melling), he gets especially playful, sending the last few seconds of “Victoria Train Station Massacre” into reverse and muffling the entirety of “O! ZZTRRK Man” with his voice stuck in the recesses of the song. It’s those little touches and turns, and Smith’s larger unpredictability, that keep this album from becoming another average entry into the catalog of a respected legacy act.
6. The Radiators from Space – TV Tube Heart
The Radiators From Space were the first punk rock band from Ireland, influencing many of those who followed including the Undertones and the Boomtown Rats, and are often cited by U2 as an inspiration. They were also one of the earliest of the class of ’77 punk rock bands. This, their first album, is full-on protest punk, with angry guitars and biting lyrics. At the time Rolling Stone magazine recognised them as “outdistancing most of the competition”. The original 13-track album is turned into a 33-track epic. Of the 33 only the album plus three non-album single sides have been available on CD before. The two alternate versions have only ever been available on an Irish cassette compilation. The 15 previously unissued recordings comprise ten ‘live in the studio’ sides made on the first day of recording and five very live tracks from the band’s debut London show at the Vortex Club. All are mastered from new high res transfers. The band never really broke up. Philip Chevron went on to join the Pogues, but there were frequent reunions and three further studio albums over the years.
7. The XX – I See You
Pregnant with potential meanings, the title of the xx’s immersive third album gradually reveals itself over the course of 10 new songs. It is not accusative – “I see you, stealing that guitar sound” – but more in keeping with the ongoing themes of this minimal, intimate band; more consolatory. “I see you”, this album says, “as you are.”
Prefaced by a series of more outgoing tracks, I See You has been touted as the xx’s least insular album thus far. If Jamie Smith’s solo outing of 2015, In Colour, constituted a successful experiment with shades beyond the minimal monochrome that originally defined the band, then I See You finds them a little gaudier of palette. Using samples for the first time, they have tweaked their sound in myriad ways, while still retaining the sense of proximity within spaciousness for which they are famous. You could say it was more commercial, if the mainstream hadn’t been biting the xx’s style relentlessly. (“Justin Bieber is doing tropical house,” noted Smith in a recent interview.)
The first song opens with a Caribbean horn fanfare, the shock of which will have you running to the track-listing to see if you haven’t accidentally hit play on a different band. Sinuous and garagey, Dangerous sounds like it could have come from Smith’s solo outing, and finds singers Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft sharing lines such as “I couldn’t care less/ If they call us reckless.”
The three-way relationships that sustain the band were sorely tested over the course of recording. Sims, in particular, has stepped back from partying as a result. (“Does the night chase me?” he wonders on Replica).
Located at the heart of the album, Performance finds Madley Croft “putting on a show” and “playing hide and seek” while Smith’s scything keyboard violin sound etches zigzags above her head. The album closer, a gospelly piano-led duet called Test Me, is more abrupt. A ghostly analogue curlicue tracks a sonar bloop. “You look”, murmurs Madley Croft, “but you never see.”