Off The Record: The Brave New Pogues
THE best that can be said about the new album from The Pogues is that much of it sounds nothing like The Pogues. In the fan's mind, any reference to this record was prefixed with the words "long awaited." Will it be better than before? Will they be freed since their canning of that drunk, MacGowan? Will they try and emulate that drunk, MacGowan? Will it be absolute crap?
Turns out, the answer is (E) All of the Above, and then some. That these guys had the nerve to make this record in the first without the career-long meal ticket of Shane MacGowan is credit enough to themselves.
Poor Spider Stacy gets the job on this new album, titled Waiting for Herb (Chameleon Records), of filling in those enormous shoes. And he does it nervously. In the pre-production to this album, this penny whistler and best friend of Shane's since the teenage years said he was working on many songs and was ready to take the helm. But the stagefright obviously took hold. Stacy contributed only one song to the dozen on this album, and on the songs penned by the others, almost all of which he sings, he sounds nervous. Listening to Waiting For Herb is occasionally similar to buying a seat to a Broadway show only to find that the star has gone sick and has been replaced by an understudy.
But perhaps the most unexpected thing about Spider's performance is that he seems to have learned his tricks less from Shane MacGowan than from MacGowan's original fill-in at lead singer, the short-lived Joe Strummer. The sound on the album, from Spider's urgent, cockney delivery to Andrew Ranken's stronger and more traditional rock and roll drumming recalls Strummer's Clash more than they do MacGowan's Pogues.
'Modern World', for example, has some vaguely MacGowanesque lyrics about sex, drugs and urban hustlers, but the sound is pure Clash. Spider sounds like strummer's former sidekick Mick Jones here, and the music, as penned by bassist Darryl Hunt (himself a replacement for another Pogues original, Cait O'Riordan) is as uptempo as The Clash's Brand New Cadillac' or even London Calling'. The same is true for My baby's Gone', which is as close to punk rockabilly as this band has ever come. The Pogues and The Clash always shared a brotherly attitude and camaraderie; here, the sound is the meeting point.
Which is not to say that the entire album has a post-punk feel to it. For producer, the band had a second thought and went against their original choice of Steve Lillywhite, a long-time collaborator known for his work with rock acts, for Michael Brooks, a not-as-well-known producer who is nonetheless lauded for his work with so-called world' music. Irish melodies will always be the backbone of the band, but here, there are citterns, pachinkos, hammered Dulcimers and Far Eastern-style string arrangements, which in many ways is a continuation of the experimentation of the last effort, Hell's Ditch.
The band has beaten the entire MacGowan issue by consciously deciding to sidestep it altogether. This is a new band, and still a very good band. The songwriting is not as inspired as it was under MacGowan, but to fill his shoes would be impossible to do and unfair to expect. It's be like saying that British literature went to the dogs after Shakespeare died. You just don't replace these things too easily.
Jem Finer, the Jewish-English banjo player and multi-instrumentalist emerges here surprisingly enough as the most productive and accomplished Pogue. He wrote or co-wrote seven of the dozen, including the album's two best. Once Upon A Time' is a thoroughly delightful pop song, and was released as the album's second single in Britain and Ireland, and Small Hours' is a startling, haunting ballad the likes of which have not been seen since Misty Morning, Albert bridge' and Broad Majestic Shannon'. Both of these Finer songs are sung perfectly by Stacy, particularly the understated and evocative Small Hours'.
If Finer, then, is the most impressive here, then elder statesman Terry Woods has to be the biggest disappointment. While he will always be a virtuoso on the banjo, the mandolin or whatever else he picks up, he has written only one song of his own here (he co-wrote another with two collaborators), and that one song, Haunting', is distinguished mostly by the speed with which it is forgotten. It is a hackneyed country tale of cycling to parish dances and some mucky-muck about seeing banshees on the way or something like that; whatever it is, Woods should know better. The other Pogues are no spring chickens either, but the impression is that they let this track on the album just to humor the old guy.
Also notable by his absence is Philip Chevron. This author of such classics as Thousands are Sailing' is, sadly, nowhere to be found here. Spider Stacy's lone song is a nice little pop number, Tuesday Morning', and as the album's first single has already climbed into the Top Twenty in britain. James Fearnley's Drunken Boat' can be said to be the sequel to Hell's Ditch's The Wake of the Medusa' -- both songs tell a well-disguised autobiographical sketch of the state of the band in the form of a sea-faring shanty. Here, the lyrics suggest a return to normalcy after the turbulence of the MacGowan years:
"We sailed through constellations and were ruffled by the storm/I crumpled under cudgel-blows and finally came ashore/I spent the next two years or more just staring at the wall/We went to sea to see the world and what d'you think we saw?
"Now the only deck I'd want to walk/Are the stalks of corn beneath my feet/And the only seas I'd want to sail/Is the darkened pond in the scented dusk/Where a kid crouched full of sadness/Lets his boat go drifting out/In-to the evening sun."
In all Waiting For Herb is a fine album. It shouldn't be compared to other Pogues albums because those albums were made by a different band. Such is the influence of one man, and such is the intelligence of the remaining seven that they chose not to pretend he was still there. They did the right thing in separating from Joe Strummer, and they did the right thing in realizing their only shot was to create and perform as an ensemble, a band without a star. That was the way MacGowan always wanted it to be, except that his mere existence in the band prohibited that from happening. As a frustrated New York baseball fan, a comparison could be made to this year's Yankees: no superstars, plenty of bench, a solid team effort, but ultimately, a few games short. Luckily, this album is as enjoyable as the just-ended pennant race.
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Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.
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