One of the more pleasing aspects to The Trashcan Sinatras’ recent live appearance in Dublin’s Workman’s Club was the size of the crowd. Although the show was a fully seated one and the space in the room curtailed as a result, it was still sold out well in advance of the band’s return to a city where, over the last twenty-five years and in an array of different venues – some of them, thankfully, long razed to the ground – they’ve struggled to attract any audiences at all.
I’ve been there with The Trashcans from the start and I’m certain I’ll be there with them at the end. And in reminding myself of that, I’m stoutly ignoring the last two decades of whats been almost absolute apathy and wide-scale indifference towards them and their work. But there are others like me out there too, clearly, and its either the mind-bending effect of the remarkable summer heat, twenty years of word of mouth, the power of the internet – or all three – that’s brought us together under the one roof, of a Tuesday night, in Dublin, during the heart of the holidays.
The Trashcans are far more master craftsmen than Golden Pages-listed snagsmiths and, back in the city for the fifth or sixth time since 1996, they’ve maybe finally found a Dublin venue that suits them and that doesn’t impede what they’re trying to do? Down on the south quays, within touching distance of The Clarence Hotel – a gaudy monument to size, scale, success and the very antithesis of The Trashcans and whatever it is they’ve achieved – The Workmans is easily one of the best venues in the country for this mild-mannered, strictly middle-aged carry-on. Small enough to be able to read the set-lists from the front rows if you can extend your neck far enough and cavernous enough around the back to lose oneself if needs be.
But I like The Workman’s best, I think, because it lends itself to the soft and the silent, neither of which I get half enough of. And so because of that, The Trashcans – stripped back to an acoustic three-piece to play their first two albums, the rascally first-born Cake’ and it’s imperious, more sedate follow-up, ‘I’ve Seen Everything’ – are already ahead on away goals before they’ve even left the dressing rooms. Throughout the long show – there’s even a welcome interval that’s used variously as a toilet break, beer stop and an opportunity for one loud, feuding couple to resolve a running row they’ve been having since just after the band came on-stage – their set is sprinkled with hush. And is received with a reverence last seen when my late mother famously hosted The Stations Of The Cross in our house one time back in the early 1980s.
I’ve never been convinced that popular alternative music, particularly in Ireland, has ever felt completely comfortable in the calm. Almost exclusively since Rory Gallagher was in his pomp– and, to be fair to him, he could do slow and serene with the best of them – far too much of it has been plagued by fever and speed. And of course its long been a useful mask: many’s the outfit who’ve covered over their obvious creative cracks with a battery of pedals and effects, absolute on power-drive and, whenever in doubt, just went one louder. So much so that you’d think we’re nursing a decades-long, post-showbands hang-over where there’s a deficiency to the natural order if audiences don’t go home sweating.
Regular Sentinel subscribers will know all about the soft, kindly magic that races through Hinterland’s 1990 album, ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, the Dublin band’s only long-form release on a major label. And although it’s far from a perfect record – it’s lyrically clumsy in part, it mistakes introspection for heavy-handed nostalgia elsewhere etc – there’s real beauty in its vulnerability. ‘Kissing’ is a dark, lonely record that isn’t afraid to let the silence sit and play a part.
From the first time I saw Donal Coghlan and Gerry Leonard perform the sullen single, ‘Dark Hill’ on an RTÉ youth magazine show back in the late 1980s, I was sold. Hinterland were elusive and out on a limb and, although both of them had good cutting and obvious form, I wasn’t surprised to hear that they were a studio-construct, to all intents, who rarely ventured outside the bunker or breached the fourth wall.
Ten years after them, Ten Speed Racer were in the vanguard of another wave of fine, spiky Dublin guitar bands, many of them seduced by pedal power. Like another excellent local outfit making hay at the time, Bawl [later Fixed Stars and then Pony Club], they also featured three brothers – Dermot, John and Patrick Barrett – among their number. But that novelty aside, they had plenty more to recommend them: The Racers were a full-bodied outfit cut from the same layered, pop-smart traditions as Silver Sun and Posies who, over the course of their career, released two decent elpees and held their own as best as anyone. For the sake of reference and by way of an introduction, I respectfully suggest both ‘By My Side’ and ‘Fifteen’ from the band’s second, self-titled album and ‘Don’t Go Out’, from their ‘Girls And Magazines’ EP. Which, apart from its obvious affability, also hints at what one of the band, guitarist Joe Chester, would do with his subsequent solo career.
And some of 10SR’s various components are still at it. Like David Long of Into Paradise, about whom I’ve recently written here, there comes a point where its just impossible to turn back or change the horse. Joe Chester is easily The Racers’ best-known graduate: he quickly found a vocational calling as a sure-footed producer and arranger but, as a writer and performer in his own right has also released some of the most endearing records in the recent history of mildly alternative Irish music.
For the last decade or so, he’s worked alongside another of his former bandmates, Patrick Barrett, on a loosely-assembled but stylishly-fitted outfit called The Hedge Schools who, earlier this year, released their third album, ‘Magnificent Birds’, one of the most under-regarded but quietly impactful Irish issues of the last twelve months. It’s the assembly’s third long-player in ten years and, in their current guise at least, the last: a couple of short messages posted recently on-line by the co-leads suggest that they’ve amicably drawn a line in the sand. And hinting too that this fine, vocational work will continue in some way, shape or form in the future.
And so, as one phase is boxed off, it’s probably only fair to approximate an Irish band that never really existed as a band at all and who, because they don’t do boisterous, struggled to ever have their voices heard over the clatter. Its a line once walked, to similar effect and with the same sort of purpose, by Hinterland.
But placing them, even for the sake of critical reference, is a hard ask and they’re difficult enough to catalogue: too rounded to be truly alternative, too dark to be wholly popular, often just too quiet to be heard. Structurally they’re cut from the same seam and have the same broad shape as This Mortal Coil in as much as Barrett’s songs are enabled by his producer – acting betimes more like an interpreter – and then hand-polished by a small cohort of like-minded guests. Its an exercise in discretion, pretty much, and often not much more than the sound of silence. And all three Hedge Schools albums are beautiful, velvet affairs because of that.
The band’s second long-player, ‘At The End Of A Winding Day’ , for instance, features a typically minimal use of percussion and the first lonely, almost reluctant jab appears only introduced towards the end of the record’s last track. Lyrically, meanwhile, The Hedge Schools’ songs are forever on the run: Barrett’s material is awash with ghosts, past and present, and its fair to assume that they’ll never be heard in weight-rooms, during motivational seminars or on any broadcast medium until well after the watershed.
The writer himself covers the background to ‘Magnificent Birds’ in detail on a recent pod-casted conversation with Cathal Funge, so its not really necessary for us to dig much further into the creative origins here. But it’s safe to say that the material continues along established lines: the songs are at the same time proud and shy, personal and slow-moving. Barrett is literally singing all his cares away, his terrific voice given air by his producer on a record that, in respect of a general theme, confronts the vagaries of family life.
One song is about his elderly mother, another about his daughter and much of the rest of the record snapshots the break-up of a long-term relationship. All standard lyrical tropes for sure, but they’re dealt with here in a manner I’ve not encountered on a domestic release since ‘Kissing The Roof Of Heaven’, where a similar use is made of the space.
And that’s reflected best, perhaps, on ‘Magnificent Birds’ standout, ‘Still, Life’, where Barrett’s fine voice is captured beautifully over a plaintive piano line, redolent of both ‘Puncture Repair’ by Elbow and maybe not entirely co-incidentally – the saddest song in all of contemporary alternative music, The Blue Nile’s ‘Family Life’ – and emerges screaming through the whisper.
But the tone has, by then, long been set: the title track and the record’s lead cut, opens and closes with what sounds like a long, low note on an old, foot-powered church harmonium, not so much a statement of intent but, rather, a call to prayer. And that mood endures, more or less, for the guts of the hour: on ‘The Flood’, ‘Undertow’ and ‘Navigate’, ‘Magnificent Birds’ is a search for healing that wouldn’t be out of place at a Novena.
To that extent its perfectly in tune with the last Joe Chester album, ‘The Easter Vigil’, which we’ve previously dealt with in detail here and which may well be its great sister piece. The sphere of influence and musical reference extends as widely as you’d expect, from Shelleyan Orphan to The Gloaming and various points in between, while the lyrical ambition is rooted in the soft, personal meditation that underscores much of the work of Van Morrison, especially his mid-1980s albums, ‘No Guru, No Method, No Teacher’ and ‘Poetic Champions Compose’.
And so its maybe no surprise that I can’t listen to The Hedge Schools without feeling the iconic pull of Seán Ó Riada’s ‘Ceol An Aifrinn’, to which many of us of a certain age were first exposed in primary school. A musical accompaniment in the Irish language for a Catholic mass that was initially performed fifty years ago, ‘Ceol An Aifrinn’ is easily one of the most enduring and distinctive pieces of contemporary composition in the creative history of the state.
And which, coming at it decades later and knowing far more about ourselves and the more complicated and darker aspects of our own history, might easily have been sub-titled ‘Did Ye Get Healed ?’.