By Eileen Murphy
TROUBLE IN THE LAND, by Black 47. On Shanachie Records.
It’s hard to articulate exactly what makes Black 47 such a compelling band. Could it be the way that they dust off classic melodies and add their own quirky (and often biting) lyrics? Is it Larry Kirwan’s animated, occasionally off-key vocals juxtaposed with Chris Byrne’s growls? Is it the irresistible mix of uilleann pipes and regg’ riffs? Perhaps the question is merely academic, particularly when the music is as good as it is on the band’s new album, "Trouble in the Land."
"Trouble" is Black 47’s first studio album since "Green Suede Shoes," and their first release since last year’s terrific "Black 47: Live from New York City" CD. The songs, all written by Kirwan, carry on the band’s tradition of social and political commentary, with a few cheeky numbers — notably, "I Got Laid on James Joyce’s Grave" — thrown in to keep things from getting too heavy.
The album opens with the title track, "Trouble in the Land," a sincere, if unsubtle, condemnation of right-wing fanatics. The chorus clunks a bit: "Too many people drawing lines in the sand/Blood on their hands/Trouble in the land," and taking aim at "a friend called Billy-oh/[Who] got a job in conservative talk radio" is rather like shooting fish in a barrel, but the song does its job. It sets the tone for the tracks that follow, in which the world is filtered through Kirwan’s sharp mind and even sharper pen.
"Those Saints" is an infectiously catchy track, in the tradition of earlier Black 47 songs "Rockin’ the Bronx" and "Green Suede Shoes." In all three songs, Kirwan catches us up on "the story so far of Black 47" — and it’s been a busy few years since they rocked the Bronx and later became the first band to shut down the city of Hoboken (as they boasted in "Shoes").
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"Saints" co-opts the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In." The old Dixieland jazz number is tarted up with uilleann pipes and set to a laid-back regg’ beat, making it one of the best tracks on the album, along with the ska-flavored "Desperate," which is sung by Kirwan and Byrne.
It would be hard to imagine a Black 47 album that didn’t comment on the history of Ireland and the struggle between the classes. "Touched by Fire," dedicated to Countess Constance de Markievicz, imagines a conversation with the aristocrat who gambled with her life and social standing to take part in the Easter Rising. The song is performed by Kirwan, with actress Terry Donnelly doing a nice job speaking the part of the countess. There’s also a song about Irish-American icon Bobby Kennedy, which is introduced by a sound clip of one of the late senator’s speeches. The Kennedy song is a bit crude in spots: "Bobby won the primary in the state of California/But some crazy mother with an illegal weapon/Blew his brains out all over that hotel," but it is also as angry, direct and uncompromising as its subject.
Though he’s best known for writing brash, catchy songs, Kirwan has a gift for delicate phrasing and quiet melody. "Susan Falls Apart" is surprisingly poignant, while "Tramps Heartbreak" and "Fallin’ off the Edge of America" eloquently covey regret for lost love and the pain of things left unsaid and undone.
"Trouble" differs from earlier Black 47 albums in that there’s no immediately obvious breakout number — like the band’s pop masterpiece "Funky Ceili" — in the lineup. The songs are more introspective here than on the other albums, the melodies and rhyme structure are much looser. There’s a rough, ad-libbed feel to "Trouble in the Land" which echoes the off-the-cuff mood of U2’s "Unforgettable Fire" or Bob Geldof’s brilliant, single-take recordings on "Vegetarians of Love."
In the end, "Trouble" stands up, both as a worthy, interesting part of the Black 47 catalog, and as a fascinating glimpse into the band’s creative process. While there may not be many radio-friendly tracks, it will earn a place on the discriminating person’s CD rack.