One of the more interesting subgenres of music to come about has to be Irish soul. An offshoot of blue-eyed soul – the term given to soul music sung by white singers – its first major proponent was Van Morrison. However, it was probably made most famous by the movie The Commitments, which followed the ups and downs of an Irish soul band. In the late 1970s another Irish soul band was born out of the ashes of various London-based punk bands. Fronted by Kevin Rowlands, Dexys Midnight Runners achieved international attention with their combination of Irish folk, soul music and punk intensity as personified by their hit single “Come On Eileen”.
Nearly 15 years since they last released a new recording, Rowlands is back with a new name, a new band and a more refined sound. Now known simply as Dexys, their new release, One Day I’m Going to Soar, through BMG is straight Irish soul. Instead of the wild kinetic energy which drove the original band’s material, this latest incarnation is a far more sedate affair. The music is no longer the assault upon the senses it once was. The raging tornado they were back in the 1980s is now the gentle ebb and flow of the tide as it steadily advances and ebbs along the shore.
No longer supercharged – anyone who saw the band in their heyday in the early 1980s will have vivid memories of the entire band charging the front of the stage like a live wall of sound – and far fewer in number than they once were, the band still retains the same core passion which made them so potent originally. Burning at the centre like a red hot sun sits Rowlands, with the molten core heating everything he comes in touch with. It’s his presence which keeps the majority of the tunes on the disc from crossing over into the territory of being too slick and sweet. His rough-hewn voice loaded with gravel and intensity rises above even soaring strings to keep things honest and soulful.
Which isn’t to say the other members of the band aren’t gifted. Far from it. As usual, Rowlands has surrounded himself with wonderfully talented players. From previous incarnations of Dexys are Mick Talbot on keyboards, Pete Williams on bass and Jim Peterson on trombone. Joining them are newcomers Neil Hubbard and Tim Cansfield on guitars, Madeleine Hyland on vocals, Lucy Morgan on viola and Ben Trigg conducting the strings section. (Although there’s obviously a drummer, I couldn’t find any mention of who was playing the kit either on the band’s website or in the album’s credits.) What’s really impressive is how big a sound the band is able to create. You would think far more people were playing the way they create the ebbs and flows required to make this type of music work.
Unlike most blues-based music, soul is all about the rise and fall of the sound. It comes at you in waves as if the players back away from a moment in contemplation before deciding to commit themselves. Once the decision is made the music builds along with the singer’s passion and in theory the listener should be swept away by the sea of feelings generated. Unfortunately a great deal of soul music relies on things like swelling strings, or something similar, in an attempt to generate the sensation. There aren’t very many singers or bands who can carry songs like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye or any of the other great soul singers of the past did. Instead of there being a symbiotic relationship between vocalist and music where they each carry the other, too much of the soul music I’ve heard ends up being the music disguising the vocalist’s inadequacies.
This isn’t the case with Dexys and Rowlands. The music and vocals work together perfectly to reflect the emotion behind each song. There was only one occasion, “You”, track five, where it felt like they went overboard in their attempts to sell the song. There was just a little too much swelling strings making the tune somewhat insipid. Thankfully it was the exception instead of the rule, as the rest of the disc’s 11 tracks are perfect examples of what soul music should sound like.
Even better than the sound were the lyrics. Instead of simply being satisfied with songs about unrequited love or how much the singer loves somebody, Rowlands and company branch out and have written some darkly humorous numbers. One of my favourites was track 10, “Free”, a song in praise of the glories of the single life. “I can’t fucking wait to go outside and live my life/At last I’m free…/They say, you don’t marry you’ll be lonely (yeah)/All good men raise a family (Oh yeah)/Hey, that’s not what I see/No, in truth some of them they don’t seem so happy/They tolerate misery, but that is not for me”.
Not the lyrics you’d expect from a soul song, or any pop song, come to think of it. Rowlands has retained the puckish humour and insolence which distinguished his music from so many others in the first place. Along with his abilities as a vocalist, he still has the ability to go up and down a scale without effort and infuse his lyrics with more character than almost anyone else in pop music. It’s this edge which has always made his material intelligent and fun to listen to. Even when the music is at its most exuberant, one can’t help listening to what he has to say.
If you pick up One Day I’m Going to Soar in the hopes of hearing the band you heard in the 1980s you’ll be disappointed. However, if you come looking to hear one of the best examples of Irish soul music to be recorded in many years, you’ll be well satisfied. Dexys ain’t Dexys Midnight Runners, but none of us are what we were 30 years ago. As is only proper, Rowlands and company have moved on and evolved into something different. Yet, the music he and his band produce is as passionate and powerful as it ever was. It’s just being delivered in a different package.