Matt McGinn. Lessons Of War

mattmcginnAs the TV news screens abysmal and horrific scenes from Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, the UN proves toothless and Brexit threatens to open up old sores in Ireland, Northern Ireland’s Matt McGinn’s fourth album is a timely release. McGinn remembers “The Troubles” well but the impetus for recording this collection of what can be loosely called “anti war” songs came about when he saw the infamous photograph of the drowned Syrian refugee toddler, Aylan Kurdi, saying, “It triggered something in me. I felt I had to do something, and writing was all I could do.” Lessons Of War is the first fruit of his endeavours, a documentary film accompanies it but so far has only had limited showings in Northern Ireland. The album finds McGinn collaborating with a host of artists. He co-writes several of the songs with some of Ireland’s finest writers including Mick Flannery, Ciaran Lavery, Ben Glover, Stephen Scullion and Brigid O’Neill. Meanwhile, several of the musicians playing on the disc are from war torn countries or have suffered serious injury in conflict areas.

Musically, the album is more akin to McGinn’s 2015 album, Latter Day Sinner, than the bombast and anger contained in his 2018 release, The End Of The Common Man. Having said that, it’s more varied, due perhaps to the various matchmaking of writers and players, but overall McGinn retains his particular Hibernian take on folk music. This particular bent is evident on the lilting co-write with Ben Glover, I Was There, with its Van Morrison like stride and fluttering Celtic flute. It’s a good snapshot of the album actually, as McGinn refers to Belfast, the civil rights movement in Montgomery and the refugee camps in Calais, bearing witness to ongoing calamities. An Shualmhneas (One Day Of Peace) goes one further with McGinn singing in Irish Gaelic, the most traditional sounding song on the album.

Evidence of the album’s democracy is apparent when Ciara O’Neill takes the lead vocals on the moving Bubblegum, a song based on a Newry teenager’s 1981 diary as she remarks equally on Top Of The Pops and a mortar attack on the local police station. It’s a chilling reminder that war was on our doorstep not so long ago. McGinn also cedes vocals on Lyra, sung by Ria McGuire and the most oblique song here, perhaps it refers to the hope besieged and battered families still harbour against all odds, whatever, it’s undeniably beautiful with Vyienne Long’s cello quite haunting.

The more one delves into this album the more powerful it sounds. The opening song is a powerful diatribe against the politicians and money men who control, remotely, atrocities across the globe. Refugees is quite astonishing as it gently floats along  with whispers of Nick Drake in its arrangement despite its grim subject. Featuring Mickey Raphael on harmonica and Barry Walsh on accordion and with some delicious double bass from Jon Thorne, it’s a magnificent song. McGinn pulls out all the stops on Child Of War which features propulsive strings and a pounding beat and is the one song here which recalls the fury of The End Of The Common Man.

Fittingly, the title song harks back to the classic days of protest songs in that it trades in slogans, questions and accusations. McGinn dresses it wonderfully as the song progresses through Celtic folk and Muslim chants for peace to all, all the while slipping in a John Lennon moment as he has a massed choir (The Citizens Of The World Choir, a London based choir of refugees from all over the world) join in. The album closes with McGinn at his best on the simple and superb When Will We Learn. A lament really but with a glimmer of hope, beautifully played and with lyrics worthy of Phil Ochs, it’s quite spine tingling and should be heard worldwide.

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Matt McGinn. The End of The Common Man. BinLid Records

mattmcginn4Irishman Matt McGinn might share his name with an infamous Glasgow singer and writer but he’s one of Ireland’s foremost artists. His 2013 album Latter Day Sinner was one of The Telegraph’s top ten folk releases of that year and he has played Nashville’s famous Bluebird Cafe and shared a stage with the likes of Elvis Costello, Nanci Griffith, Crowded House and Crosby Stills & Nash. Latter Day Sinner was an excellent collection of Celtic tinged songs which at times recalled Blue Rose Code’s similar forays into that hinterland but The End of The Common Man is a much more robust beast concerned as it is with many of the current woes of the world. There are still sweet moments of glistening folk but much of the content is informed by McGinn’s anger (and bewilderment) at the state of things – populist leaders, corporate greed and an increasing groundswell of warfare across the globe.

The album comes out punching from the bell with the horn laden title song, a powerful rant against big greed pointing out that it’s the common man who suffers as jobs and homes are lost while fat cats coin it in. With its pummelling percussion, brassy riffs and whiff of clangourous guitars the song recalls Blood Sweat & Tears and drives its message home with a slow burning anger. McGinn revisits this fuller band sound (with some twists) on several of the songs with Bells Of The Angelus sounding as if it were being played by some swampers from the South as an electric piano and sinewy slide guitar come to the fore while Out Sinner rings out with some Gospel fervour. The Right Name has one foot in a Springsteen like groove with the other planted in Van Morrison territory as it swings with a fine sense of street cool. However the full fire and fury of the band is kept in rein until the rude and raucous blues eruption of Trump, a no holds barred diatribe against the current incumbent of the White House. An easy target perhaps but the ramshackle and gritty blues riff along with McGinn’s spat out vocals and his clever adaptation of Nelly the Elephant’s chorus will certainly delight those who are not fans of the orange skinned buffoon.

Elsewhere McGinn advances the sounds he conjured up on Latter Day Sinner with more adventurous arrangements. There are aching love songs such as Somewhere To Run To, borne aloft with strings and rippling piano and The Overlanders with its mournful muted horns and softly throbbing rhythm. The pinnacle is achieved on McGinn’s grim tale of a father driven to crime to support his family and ultimately losing them on Marianne. Here the arrangement is delicate with dashes of acoustic guitar, pedal steel, a burbling bass line and weeping strings forming the skeleton of the song while a Theremin adds a lonesome eeriness to the mix. The album closes with another fine arrangement on The End Of Days with its sweeping strings and horns lending a sense of portent to McGinn’s bitter sweet ruminations as he despairs of information overload while sensing that there might be a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel, although the song collapses at the end into a babble of voices snatched from the ether.

The End Of The Common Man is a brave and adventurous album. It growls and protests without pointing fingers (aside from the Trump song) while it still has enough balm to satisfy the soul. There was an album launch last week in Belfast and the good news is that McGinn is touring to promote the album with a show in Glasgow at The Admiral Bar, a Fallen Angels promotion, on Tuesday 20th March.

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Ronnie Costley. Souvenirs & Scotch Mist.

Ronnie Costley was the fireball vocalist of the late and very great Glasgow band Kissing Bandits who were on the cusp of success in the eighties with a major label deal and a knock out sixties based garage punk sound. Sadly major success was not to be and the band went their separate ways with Costley relocating to Ireland where he earns a living with what is reportedly a very fine Frank Sinatra act. News of this album was intriguing as we didn’t know what to expect and when it popped through the post the first play led to a fairly flummoxed response. This wild rocker of yore and current Rat Pack purveyor had delved into his past to deliver an album that reeks of nostalgia for growing up in Glasgow and presents it in a fashion that recalls the great folklorists of the city including Matt McGinn, Adam McNaughton and Billy Connolly. There’s precious little evidence of garage punk or Las Vegas neon here, instead Costley has produced an album of songs that could appeal to grannies and grandweans alike and which has at the heart of it a genuine swell of pride.
Taking as his template the Glasgow sing along folk song for the majority of the songs here Costley manages to marry the humour and the hardness that is often thought of as uniquely Glaswegian. The album can be seen as a chronological account of his growing up with When We Were Wee capturing his earliest childhood days. Stuffed full of childhood images that any contemporaries will recognise (Popeye the sailor man lives in a caravan, Oor Willie books on Christmas day) this is a wonderfully affecting song. A little bit older and a little bit wilder Bogeyman is more raucous with the banjo driving a tale of urchins scampering through closes and captures the brash mock bravery of childhood. Adolescent stirrings lead on to the love pangs of Rose, a delicate plea to walk a girl home. The teenage years offer escape from the home to the nirvana that was Arran where girls, drink and rock ‘n’ roll beckoned, all captured in the instrumental The Purser which recalls the boat trip, Ode To Bobby D and The Lassies of Lamlash which is a great portrait of many teens’ experience away from home for the first time and which is given an authentic STV hootenanny delivery.
Older and more reflective Sail Away has a Joni Mitchell feel to it as it celebrates the freedom of the country but Mammy’s Boy takes us back to the dank and sometimes dangerous city. The album ends with a trio of songs that reflect the mature singer looking back on the past. Grandpa is an aural family tree that plays around with popular Scottish sounds. Tethered is a fabulous folk song which celebrates the simplicity and contentment of the denizens of the islands. The final song The Banks Of The Clyde is another celebration. An expats’ return to Glasgow it starts off as a simple guitar melody with Costley’s tender vocals as he describes the places of his youth. The arrangement gathers strength and swells with percussion and pipe sounds as the song progresses and by the end one realises that this is a song that captures some of the heart of Glasgow. Corny as it may sound the feelings aroused are probably similar to those experienced by our parents when they listened to the likes of Calum Kennedy or Kenneth McKellar when they sang their songs of the Clyde.
Although the album as a whole lurches from style to style the majority of the songs are very impressive. The McGinn like Bogeyman, When we Were Wee which could have come from Robin Hall and Jimmie McGregor and the Alistair McDonald styled The Lassies Of Lamlash should be added to every Glasgow folk singer’s repertoire. The players include several of Costley’s eighties compadres (Jimmy Moon, banjo player and guitar maker of note, John Palmer and Martin Cotter)and they are all on top form. All in all this is probably the last thing one would expect from an ex leather clad post punk Glasgow rocker. But here it is and it is mighty fine.
You can buy it here or email Ronnie himself via his website