The Pogues: Just Look Them Straight in the Eye and Say...Poguemahone!!
8.5 stars (out of 10)
The Pogues were an unlikely post-punk success: Irish artists from England who filtered rowdy punk and hard-drinking pub rock through Celtic traditions. The latter they treated as a birthright rather than a burden, not simply updating well-worn sounds but finding old ways to play new styles, which gives them a rough-and-tumble quality that tends to thwart most polished attempts to define their particular appeal. Today it seems difficult to imagine any group with a tin whistle becoming as big as the Pogues, especially without being derided as gimmicky or disrespectful-- accusations once regularly leveled at the band. They were anything but. There's a reverence in their irreverence, and respect in their range of styles and emotions: the boozily sentimental, the grandly cinematic, the snarlingly raucous, and the desperately personal. The Pogues played a barnstormer like "The Sickbed of Cuchulainn" as adeptly as a genuinely lovely and forlorn tune like "A Pair of Brown Eyes", but acted as though they refused to see the distinctions between them.
Before and after their initial break-up in 1996 (they've reformed to tour since then), there have been several retrospectives of varying depth and quality attempting to convey the band's innovation and impact: one-disc surface skimmers like The Essential Pogues from 1991, which collect their biggest hits, and two-disc career sum-ups like The Ultimate Collection in 2005, which dig a bit deeper. Just Look Them Straight in the Eye and Say... Poguemahone!!-- Poguemahone, the band's original name, means "Kiss my arse"-- is a very different creature. For starters, it's a 5xCD behemoth, making it the largest Pogues retrospective to date. No mere autobiography, it's a musical tome. Furthermore, rather than rehash the band's most well-known moments, this secret history of its tumultuous career scrapes together B-sides, extended singles, alternate takes, live tracks, covers, compilation cuts, pretty much everything they contributed to the Sid & Nancy soundtrack (used or unused), demos that were previously lost, demos that were never lost, demos that they might wish were lost-- in general, the musical detritus a band accumulates over three decades.
This type of vault-cleaning release can be as flummoxing as it is revelatory. By their very nature, these tracks were at some point judged inferior to those that eventually made their way onto albums or singles. Most often, a release like this works better as a historical document than as a musical experience, filling in the gaps in the band's catalog and reminding you how great said band's studio albums are. Compiled by guitarist Philip Chevron, Poguemahone nods to this expectation. Or, as drummer Andrew Ranken scrawls in the liners: "As for this monstrous pile of bullshit which was left on the cutting room floor, and probably should have been carefully incinerated, (or returned to its rightful owner), it just feels to me like the last squeeze of a desiccated teat that dangles from the shriveled udder of a mired to its knees in the bog skeletal cow unto which a foul cowman has been sent to milk. Jaysus!"
But the Pogues are better represented by a monstrous pile of cowshit than a shiny, carefully curated box set that politely considers their place in 1980s British rock, which is why Poguemahone is more satisfying than any of their glorified greatest hits. In fact, that might be the key to their long career and continued appeal, the very reason we're discussing them as a box-settable band rather than a one-off Stiff Records curiosity. They'd rather say "kiss my ass" than kiss yours, which means for Pogues enthusiasts, this box will be a fucking godsend, full of rare tracks that the most diehard will have heard and many more that will be completely new.
Because the set covers the full breadth of their career, these five discs emphasize a constant rotation of singers and musicians (each line-up is listed separately in the liners) rather than focusing on their 1980s heyday. The lumbering, slurring Shane MacGowan is less of a presence here than expected. Even so, he's as unavoidable as the drunk in the doorway, and Poguemahone makes a convincing case for his talents as both a songwriter and as a singer. The live tracks from Rum Sodomy & the Lash, especially their energetic reading of "Sally MacLennane" show his mastery over a crowd, and his raucous take on "Do You Believe in Magic?", an outtake from the EP Poguetry in Motion, avoids the pisstake and constitutes a credible, even inspired cover. Kirsty MacColl, MacGowan's best vocal foil, gets several songs on these five discs, and her voice, as always, ranges from withering contempt to devastating heartbreak in the span of a single syllable. Next to them, the other Pogues singers-- Cait O'Riordan, Spider Stacy, and Jem Finer chief among them-- can sound a bit indistinctive. Perhaps the biggest disappointments are the live cuts with Joe Strummer, who served a brief tenure in the band in the 1990s. These live versions of "London Calling" and "I Fought the Law" sound like any other Clash cover band. Better are the two versions of Steve Earle's "Johnny Come Lately"-- the studio take from his 1988 album Copperhead Road and a live cut with Stacy on vocals.
"Fairytale of New York", the Pogues' holiday chestnut is included here three times. The 1986 demo features MacGowan, Elvis Costello on piano, and enough missed notes to suggest they're all making it up as they go along. The two from the following year show how the song developed over time, finally leading to the Steve Lillywhite version on If I Should Fall from Grace With God in 1988. Other best-of fodder, like "A Pair of Brown Eyes" and "Turkish Song of the Damned", are included in solid live cuts, and the 12" single remix of "If I Should Fall from Grace with God" launches into an extensive jam that sounds like the Pogues are truly enjoying their disgrace. Such inclusions make Poguemahone a good introduction to the band, although newcomers are still strongly encouraged to pick up Rum Sodomy & the Lash. However, the best songs here are those from the darkest corners of their catalog, such as the delicate Peace & Love outtake "The Mistlethrush" and the raggedy instrumental demo "Lust for Vomit", which portray the band with all their compelling flaws intact. All in all, a monumental pile of cowshit in the best possible way.
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