When Blabber’n’Smoke attended the Kilkenny Roots festival back in May we were very pleased to see Villiers and The Villains play in some of the local pubs as part of the free music trail which is an integral part of the festival. We’d first heard of this Belfast based band back in 2016 when we reviewed Songs of Love and Fate, a fine mix of Dylan influenced country rockers and some Lou Reed urban cool. Live we can confirm that they can carry off this mix with some aplomb, stretching out on some numbers with guitarist Doc Doherty keen to whip out some excellent solos at the drop of a hat. A perfect bar band in fact, rooted in blues and rock with the attitude and look of “been there and done it.” Music Confounds the Machine builds on the first album with the band tighter and taking on more influences including an exciting injection of south of the border Mexicana and while Tony Villiers is still somewhat in thrall to Dylan and Reed, here he’s bolder, casting aside their shadows on several of the songs.
The album kicks off with a fat sounding horn section parping over a bluesy band stroll on The 1979 Situation with the horns and Doherty’s squealing guitar conspiring to drown the song in a caterwauling sound as Villiers snarls away. It’s loose limbed and pub friendly but as an introduction to the album it slightly wrong foots the listener as the remainder of the disc is much more nuanced. Kingdoms of Sin takes the born again Dylan of the eighties into an almost vaudevillian atmosphere with a cod dramatic vocal chorus as it waltzes along and one can imagine the late Alex Harvey enjoying this one and the bluesy Red Wine and Reefer would surely bring a smile to the ghost of Rory Gallagher. There’s more horn fuelled rumpus on Meat for the Dogs while Montpelier Hill comes across as if a jocular Lou Reed was having a good day. Little Rhoda May meanwhile is an excellent skiffle like number which, like several songs from the previous album, sounds like Dylan and The Band goofing off in the basement of Big Pink and The Band are again recalled as The Villains add an organ to the mix on the southern swell of Without Your Love.
So far so good but Villiers and the band ramp it up on several numbers. Mexico is a magnificent song which drinks deep of many excellent bands who have roamed around the borderlands with Little Feat the first that springs to mind although the band here invest the song with their own personality. The Government is Coming to Town recalls the theatrics of Kingdoms of Sin although here it’s more pronounced with Villiers the ringmaster announcing the arrival of ministers of state as if they were clowns tumbling from a car and the band trip out on Tijuana tequila. Two songs find Villiers speaking in his fine brogue with his voice on the title song invariably reminding this listener of Van Morrison’s Coney Island although there is no narrative, more an impressionistic poem imbued with the spirit of Dylan Thomas and Jackie Leven. He speaks again on The Bubble Will Burst, a lengthy closing song which has the band and Villiers honing in on Lou Reed circa his New York album but which again is delivered with an authority which allows the song to stand well clear of becoming just a pastiche.
We need to mention the delightful Down at Ellie Mays which has Villiers with guitar and harmonica creating a song which can stand along with any romantic singer/songwriter song from the past couple of decades and he also picks up a harmonium for a hidden number at the end of the album bringing it to a wonderfully creaky end.