Wednesday, December 9, 2009

December 9: The Pogues, "If I Should Fall From Grace With God"

Artist: The Pogues
Album: If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Year: 1987
Label: Island

One of the greatest aspects of rock music is the sheer variety in sound that comes as a result of the locale, influences, and era in which the music is made. The world is, as they say, a very big place, and when bands are able to infuse their local culture with a larger sound, it often results in some of the greatest bands in history. While Thin Lizzy certainly carry the flag as the greatest Irish rock band in history, they were far more rock than they were Irish, and in their rock style, they rarely deviated from their formula. Taking the opposite approach, and pursuing a way to blend together the traditional folk sounds of Ireland with the punk ethos, there have been few bands as innovative and absolutely stunning as The Pogues. Drawing influence from as wide-ranging artists as Tom Waits, Isaac Hayes, and The Clash (Joe Strummer sang lead vocals for The Pogues in 1991), The Pogues brand of music brought together many of musics' finest elements into one phenomenal sound. Quickly gaining notoriety as one of the most high energy and truly wild live acts around, the group released a number of powerful and original albums throughout the 1980's, yet it was clear that the groups' sound had still yet to be tamed. After releasing an absolutely stunning album under the production of Elvis Costello, the group looked to fully incorporate all of their various influences on their next record. This would become The Pogues' greatest album of their career, and 1987's If I Should Fall From Grace With God stands today as one of the most exciting and original albums ever released.

While on their previous efforts, The Pogues had proved that they were one of the most fierce, yet unquestionably talented bands on the planet, it seemed odd that they chose to enlist the services of producer Steve Lillywhite. Having previously worked with the likes of Talking Heads and Simple Minds, it seemed a rather strange fit, yet it was Lillywhite's focusing of the band that enabled The Pogues to fully incorporate their various musical styles into a single, seamless product. The way in which Lillywhite guided the band enabled the record to keep the hard edge that defined the sound of The Pogues, yet it is a far cleaner and more professional or proper record then anything the band had previously released. Along with this cleaner sound, the band also seems to be far more confident in deploying a wider variety of sounds, from the sitar and Middle-Eastern sounds of "Turkish Song Of The Damned" to the Spanish feel of "Fiesta," If I Should Fall From Grace With God easily covers all corners of the globe, yet pulls them all together with a wonderfully cohesive sound. Also present on the record is the chart topping, "Fairytale Of New York." One of the most beautiful duets ever recorded, the female vocalist is Kristy MacColl, who also happened to be the wife of Steve Lillywhite. To this day, the song still tops "best Christmas song" lists all over Europe, and it is a testament to the brilliant writing and musicianship within The Pogues.

The amazing wall of sound that is present on every song on If I Should Fall From Grace With God is due to the fact that each of the eight band members are superb musicians, and they are able to move as a single melodic force. With so many band members, The Pogues are able to incorporate a number of instruments that are not normally present in rock music, and this further adds to their distinctive sound. Shane MacGowan and Philip Chevron handle a majority of the guitar work on the album though Terry Woods and James Fearnley also add guitar parts. Usually sticking to traditional Irish sounds, it is the manner in which they play that gives the music its harder tone. Fearnley also provides the accordion playing which is featured on nearly every track, and it is often his contributions that are the highlights of the music. The rhythm section of Darryl Hunt's bass and the drumming of Andrew Ranken provide one of the strongest backbones in music history, and it is their ability to fully execute so many different styles that gives The Pogues the freedom to explore. Along with being one of the key songwriters, Jem Finer lends sensational banjo and saxophone playing to If I Should Fall From Grace With God, and the fact that the band incorporates a full horn section further distances them from any other group...and that's not even mentioning the "tin whistle" that is attributed to Spider Stacey. There is simply no way one can accurately describe the music found on If I Should Fall From Grace With God, as there are so many different elements at play, that it is truly an album one must experience firsthand to fully appreciate.

Along with the absolutely brilliant music, The Pogues bring with them one of the finest vocalists in music history. The sound and style that Shane MacGowan brings to every Pogues song has been copied countless times since, and one can clearly hear his vocal influence in the music of bands like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys. MacGowan's gritty, deep voice and his heavy Irish dialect give the songs of The Pogues all of the angst and authenticity that they need, and it is also one of the most intriguing aspects of their music. Not only is Shane MacGowan one of the greatest vocalists of his generation, but he proves on If I Should Fall From Grace With God that he is also one of its finest lyricists. Running the gamut from love songs to social criticisms, the album features as wide a variety in lyrical themes as it does in musical styles. Easily one of the most powerful songs on the entire record is the shared song between MacGowan and Woods, "Streets Of Sorrow/Birmingham Six." The first part, which is sung by Woods, is one of the most heartbreaking songs every performed, as it presents the first-person tale of someone leaving Northern Ireland during "The Trouble" years. Woods laments, "...through the last six years I've lived through terror, and in the darkened streets the pain...oh how I long to find some solace, in my mind I curse the strain.." and the raw emotion that he presents is like nothing else ever recorded. The song then kicks into high gear, as MacGowan brings a rallying cry in support of the "Birmingham Six" and the "Guildford Four," both being groups that had been forced to confess to crimes they did not commit due to being tortured. Whether bringing holiday beauty or rallying against social injustices, one can clearly hear that, neither musically nor lyrically, The Pogues know no boundaries.

Bringing together an uncanny variety in musical influences, street-wise lyrics and tone, and some of the most stunning musical performances ever recorded, there has simply never been another record like The Pogues' If I Should Fall From Grace With God. Taking their powerful blend of traditional Irish instrumentation and fusing it together with the attitude and angst of the punk movement, the band presented a sound that no other group before or since has been able to even remotely duplicate. Though their experimentations with both Spanish and Middle Eastern influences would in retrospect be a sign of the direction which the band would pursue, its early incarnations here are absolutely stunning and years ahead of its time. Without question, the efforts of Steve Lillywhite kept the band far more focused, and this increased concentration on the music yielded a sound that, while the band always had in them, it had never been properly exposed. This change in musical approach may also be due to the fact that it was the first to fully feature Woods and Hunt, while it also marks the bands' first album without original bassist, Cait O'Riordan. Leaving no musical or lyrical stone unturned, there have been few musical efforts that are as all-encompassing and truly phenomenal as one finds on The Pogues' 1987 masterpiece, If I Should Fall From Grace With God.

Standout tracks: "Turkish Song Of The Damned," "Thousands Are Sailing," and "Streets Of Sorrow/Birmingham Six."

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