Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review of Black 47's "Home of the Brave"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website 2 days ago:

Review Summary: "Hey big fellah ... Where the hell are you now/When we need you the most?"

After the release of Fire of Freedom in 1993, the world seemed to be Black 47's for the taking. Even though a record company misstep had cost the band the chance to sell way more copies of the album than they actually did (namely the fact that by the time the album was released, the two singles, "Maria's Wedding" and "Funky Céili" were both several months past the height of their popularity), Fire of Freedom was clearly a triumph, and there was no reason to believe that the follow-up album wouldn't be as well. So flush with success, the band prepared to record what lead singer/songwriter Larry Kirwan later referred to as "the most difficult album I have ever been involved with," Home of the Brave.

Home of the Brave is a first-rate album, showcasing all of the elements that Black 47 has come to be known for over the years. Musically, the album mixes traditional Celtic rhythms; elements of rock (in particular, the kind of big band rock that is usually associated with artists of the Jersey Shore like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes); the occasional reggae beat; and several spoken-word, hip-hop influenced vocals. The band is tight, which gives Kirwan the freedom to be a little more loose with the vocals. There are also a number of female guest vocalists on the display, plus one song done rap-style by Seanchi (aka Chris Byrne), the band's uilleann pipe/tin whistle player.

As for the songs, they're a mix of several Black 47 staples as well. You have political songs ("Big Fellah", "Paul Robeson (Born to Be Free)" and "Time to Go"), humorous songs of love and lust ("Oh Maureen", "Losin It" and "Different Drummer"), and songs that create vivid characters in order to tell you stories ("Voodoo City", "Blood Wedding" and "Black Rose").

The two tracks that stand out the most for me are "Big Fellah" and "Voodoo City". "Big Fellah" is a rousing rock anthem that tells the story of Michael Collins, the revolutionary leader who was a main figure in the struggle for Irish independence in the early 20th Century. Collins helped to push the UK to the negotiating table for the Anglo-Irish Treaty that split the country into the Irish free state and Northern Ireland. The "big fellah" is described as "a towering mighty man" who'd crucify an informer or an English spy without thinking twice, but one who is so softhearted that "every widow, whore and orphan could always turn to you." The song is sung from the perspective of a longtime follower of Collins who serves under him in the fight for freedom but turns against him in horror after the signing of the treaty, because "we couldn't betray the republic like Arthur Griffin and you." "Big Fellah" has always been one of the band's most popular live songs, and for good reason -- it's a fast-paced and inspiring track, all the more so because the song's protagonist still obviously admires and respects Collins, even though he is part of the group that eventually ambushes and kills him. 

"Voodoo City" is a reggae number that continues the saga of Paddy and the Iceman begun in the song "Banks of the Hudson" from the Fire of Freedom album. This time around, Paddy has fled New York City after ripping off a vicious mobster, and is hiding in New Orleans under the protection of a beautiful Voodoo priestess named Marie Laveau. But "New York is not scorned so easily," he explains. So naturally the Iceman eventually tracks him down. What happens next? I won't spoil it for you. You need to listen to this steamy track for yourself. 

The album was produced by former Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison (who also adds some supporting keyboards), and while Kirwan found the recording process to be grueling for this one, he was ultimately pleased with the result, saying "Home of the Brave, song for song is one of the best albums released in 1994 and it still stands up." I have to agree with him.

Sadly, it didn't meet the fate it deserved. For starters, the recording process used up most of the funds EMI had laid out for the album, leaving little money to actually pay the band. Then, three days after Home of the Brave was released, the band's point person at the label was fired. It got some airplay in a few cities for the first two or three weeks, but when the radio stations learned that the label had no intention of putting any money into promoting it, they decided not to put it into their regular rotation. This essentially shot down Black 47's chance to ever make it truly big, although they remained a hard-working and much respected touring and club band for another twenty years.

Come to it with fresh ears, and Home of the Brave has a great deal to offer. From the comic ramblings of the obsessed would-be lover who tries vainly to win back his lady love in "Oh Maureen", to the melodramatic and violent tale of murder and revenge in "Blood Wedding", to Black 47's barely recognizable version of the maudlin classic "Danny Boy" (Danny is a gay construction worker in this one who splits his homophobic foreman "from his jaw to ear" with a two-by-four), this album is full of musical treats. I still enjoy listening to it twenty-plus years after its release, and I can't say that about too many '90s albums. It might not be quite as consistent an album as Fire of Freedom, and it might not have launched the band to the heights that they hoped that it would. But as Kirwan said, "It still stands up." It does indeed.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars