"HELL'S DITCH" The Pogues (Island)
Formats: LP, Cassette, CD
Whenever I think about the Pogues, I recall a phrase from William Butler Yeats -- "the indomitable Irishry."
Every member of this Gaelic punk string band is remarkable. I love the sound of Spider Stacy's tin whistle -- a high, airy piping that's simultaneously sad and gay, patriotic and to-hell-with-it. James Fearnley's accordion serves the same function that guitar feedback does in a more electric band -- providing a drone that ties together the band's sound.
Jem Finer's banjo and Terry Woods' mandolin interlock to give the band a subtle but steely structure. The masterly drummer Andrew Ranken plays like Charlie Watts of the Stones would if he were convinced people could actually hear what he was doing. And Darryl Hunt's bass playing is warm enough to recall Motown's great James Jamerson. (Acoustic guitarist Philip Chevron is the one Pogue I don't hear as distinctive.)
But for all their musical prowess, the Pogues would be just another pack of jigmasters without lead singer, chief songwriter and dental-hygiene poster boy Shane MacGowan, whose brilliant, half-muttered singing and blackly sentimental writing are at the heart of this band.
On "Peace and Love," the Pogues' last album, MacGowan was in poor form -- only the urban-renewal travelogue "White City" was up to his usual standard.
He has the misfortune to shoulder two mighty traditions of self- destruction, rock 'n' roll and Irish literature -- Jim Morrison and Brendan Behan. One read in the press that his drinking had grown so out of control that the band played half a tour without MacGowan. It was a horrifying thought and presented a more horrifying prospect -- wouldn't you want to fire a guy who put you through that?
Well, they didn't, and the Pogues' great new album proves MacGowan has somehow managed to survive without turning into a bore. It opens with "The Sunnyside of the Street," the song of a reprobate who wants to find his way to happiness without abasing himself. "I will not be reconstructed," MacGowan gargles.
No kidding. MacGowan's sunny side is where he swears "to take my life as I would a whore" and admits one of the strangest urges in the annals of rock:
I saw that train, And I got on it, With a heart full of hate, And a lust for vomit
. . . He said sunny, not pretty.
The world according to MacGowan is a nasty place -- "Naked howling freedom -- Hell's Ditch," he sings on the title catalog of horrors.
But in such bleak quarters, the merest hint of spontaneous, freely felt pleasure is magical, redeeming the tawdry haunts of "Rain Street" ("a stupid -------- place to be"). Even the chance of its happening is enough: "I'd do it for the ghost of a smile," MacGowan sings in the warmest song here, "Ghost of a Smile" (which builds from a quote of the bass line from "Under the Boardwalk").
This is the Pogues' most consistent record ever, produced with sympathetic clarity by Joe Strummer of the Clash (although I think he stiffed Ranken's drums in the mix). I mean consistent in quality, not samey; this band continues to demonstrate an incredible range.
"Hell's Ditch" starts out sounding like a more aggressive version of the theme to "The Third Man," then shifts into an odd Irish/Turkish stripper music -- what they might have played for a belly dancer at the 1910 Donegal fair.
Some of the album's most successful songs tour the Pacific Rim. "House of the Gods," a carefree ode to the joys of Thailand's Singha beer, sounds like the Beachboys shipwrecked in Australia. "Six to Go" could be a Hawaiian festival chant, the perfect distant soundtrack for watching a sunset with a huge fruity drink in your hand. ----
The band even pulls off "Summer in Siam," the sort of tinkly, star-lit ballad you'd expect to hear in some regurgitated thriller or film noir, sung by a Sinatra imitator selling exotica on the cheap.
The sound of the Pogues is more profound for me than anything they have to say -- but only because it's such a great sound. I think of the tumbling instrumental chorus of "White City" -- a quick reel that crashed over and over again, as if to prove what a plenitude of music this band has to expend.
They haven't gambled or drunk the music away yet. Indomitable indeed.
All rights reserved
Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.
Your intrepid maintainer is DzM.