Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Review of Black 47's "Fire of Freedom"

I posted the following review on the Sputnik Music website earlier this afternoon:

The story of Fire of Freedom is one of those "coulda, woulda, shoulda" cautionary tales that parents use to talk their children out of becoming musicians. The gist of it is this -- after a couple of independent releases, celtic rock band Black 47 signed with EMI Records. Because the band was not only unknown but also not the typical kind of group that was being played on the radio at the time, the label decided (and the band agreed) they should introduce themselves to the public by recording a limited-release self-titled EP before they recorded the full-length Fire of Freedom. They brought Ric Ocasek of The Cars in to produce it, and released the first single, "Funky Ceili (Bridie's Song)". Then Murphy's law (the adage, not the band) took over, and much to everyone's surprise, "Funky Ceili" took off like Usain Bolt. Alternative radio played the hell out of it. MTV played the hell out of the video. The band, still gigging at relatively small Irish bars in New York City, started packing them in at their live shows. Time magazine was even writing about them. Unfortunately, when the song was at its hottest, most people couldn't buy it. By the time Fire of Freedom was finally released in March of 1993, the song's highest point of popularity was already several months past. "Maria's Wedding", the planned second single, had also run its course with radio airplay. The album still sold decently, but nowhere near as well as it would have if it had been released when the singles were still hot. 

It's unfortunate, because Fire of Freedom is an excellent album. It tells a series of stories, the common theme for most of them being the experience of the young Irish immigrant in New York as seen through the eyes of Black 47 singer/songwriter/poet/multi-instumentalist Larry Kirwan. Hard working, hard drinking and music-loving characters abound, some involved in shady business, others just trying to get by while working at menial jobs and living with perpetual homesickness. Kirwan tells you their tales in a series of sometimes humorous and sometimes tragic sound paintings. The band brings them to life in their own unique style, mixing traditional Irish jigs and reels with rock, reggae and hip-hop.

While "Funky Ceili" and "Maria's Wedding" were the big singles, the heart of the album, or maybe more accurately its spine, is the powerful closing number "Livin' in America". It's a maybe-love story, between a nameless young woman (superbly sung by Mary Courtney of the band Morningstar) and man (sung by Kirwan) who each describe their mad lifestyle while wrestling with whether or not to begin a relationship. The song is given added emphasis by two shortened versions that precede it, the album's first track "Livin' in America (Fordham Road 8 AM)" and the eighth track "Livin' in America (Bainbridge Avenue 2:00 AM)". The first starts off slowly and quietly, as the girl travels to her job in the morning, musing over the play her would-be paramour made for her the night before. The second, also slow and introspective, takes place as she watches him in the bar later that night, weighing the pluses and minuses before making her decision. By the time the full-band, faster version of the song kicks in at track 14, we're familiar with the music and anxious to hear how the story plays out. She's babysitting and doing menial housework in spite of her education, he's working at a lousy manual labor job, they're both hitting the bars and drinking most nights, and he has a reputation as a player. Clearly, the odds are against them. In the end, hope wins out as she decides "What the hell, nothing ventured, nothing gained." It's an optimistic song -- we know they're going to have some hard times ahead, but by the time the album ends, we're rooting for these two people to make it work somehow, in spite of the desperation of their everyday lives.

"Funky Ceili (Bridie's Song)" is another vignette, and a humorous one. In this one, Kirwan gets fired from his job at the Bank of Ireland the same day he learns that he's gotten his girlfriend Bridie pregnant. Her father gives him two choices: "Castration, or a one-way ticket to New York." The song serves as a letter to Bridie back in Ireland, as he describes his life as a usually-drunken celtic rock musician in New York, and tries to cajole her to take the baby and move to America, where he swears he has the "biggest bed in New York". The song is structured around a smile-inducing Irish jig played on Chris Byrnes' uilleann pipes. Kirwan acknowledged it might be slightly autobiographical. (A little fun fact for you here -- if you haven't guessed, a "Ceili", is a type of social gathering with music and dancing). 

"Maria's Wedding", the album's other single, is another amusing song sung by yet another drunken ne'er-do-well character to his ex, as he apologizes for wrecking her wedding to another man and tries his best to win her back. He promises that he loves her so much that "I'll even go out and get a job for you!" The music here sounds more South Jersey than celtic, as it's built around Geoffrey Blythe's saxophone and Fred Parcells' trombone.

There are a number of other really good songs here. "James Connolly" is a rousing tribute to the Irish Republican leader who was executed by the British for his role in the Easter uprising of 1916. It's the first in a series of musical eulogies to various Irish labor leaders and rebels that Kirwan has penned over the years. "Banks of the Hudson" is the first of two songs written about the (presumably fictional) characters of Paddy, a loser who makes love to his girlfriend even as he knows he's about to abandon her, and the Iceman, the mobster he ripped off who relentlessly pursues him. (Their story continues on the 1994 Home of the Brave album in the song "Voodoo City.") Meanwhile, "40 Shades of Blue" is a story of depression, homesickness and self-loathing built around yet another traditional Irish reel.

A few words are needed here about Larry Kirwan's vocals. Kirwan's voice is one of those acquired tastes, like that of Bob Dylan or Tom Waites. It's kind of high-pitched and more than a little whiny, and half the time he speaks his lyrics more than sings them. His greatest attribute, however, is that of a storyteller, and for all of his vocal deficiencies, he has a way of inhabiting the characters he's created that usually more than compensates for his lack of vocal beauty. In truth, I can't imagine anyone else singing these songs and doing them justice.

As for the music, Black 47 at the time of Fire of Freedom was a tight, club-tested 6-piece outfit, with Ocasek helping out on the album with some guitars and keyboards, and various guest background vocalists adding their skills to the mix. Most of the songs are dominated by the uilleann pipes, the saxophone and the trombone rather than the traditional rock band emphasis on the electric guitar.

Sadly, Black 47 never reached the heights that they deserved. Fire of Freedom's singles being already past their prime at the time of its release, the label decided that instead of releasing a third single, the band should just move on to record their next LP. Three days after their follow-up album Home of the Brave was released, the band's point man at EMI was fired, taking with him any serious label support for the new album and costing the band their shot at the big time. They spent the next 10 years as a successful and respected club band, playing New York bars and occasionally out-of-town venues and Irish festivals, before disbanding in November of 2014. Nevertheless, Black 47 has left behind a fine body of recorded work, with Fire of Freedom being arguably the strongest album in their discography.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars