If Roxy covered Van and Paul Young sang Paul Brady, would it sound like Gareth Dunlop on Animal?
Release date: 22nd April 2022
Label: Zenith Café/Membran
Format: CD / digital
Is it me or are the ’80s suddenly hip again? Every second new song I hear these days seems to relish in that feel, with retro now the most used word in the PR handbook. And, if not that, in the review writer’s copybook. Which is fine by me, ‘cos I loved the music of the 1980’s, largely having a lot more dynamism to me than the wishy washy ’60’s and prog v punk schizoid ’70s. All those analog synths and gated thuds drums were right up my closed bedroom door, curtains closed at midday.
Gareth Dunlop isn’t a household name, not yet anyway. You’ve possibly heard his stuff, wafting into the bar from the stage, as you stoke up before the big ticket act lures you to your seat. If you go to gigs in Ireland, that is. He’s supported acts as diverse as Van Morrison and Snow Patrol, most often in N’Orn, that being his home turf. He has also pitched songs successfully into boxsets (Lucifer, Bones), adverts and the like, and written songs then used in the series Nashville. Oho, you say, Nashville then, more blimmin’ Americana. Oho, say I, wrong, if not adaptable. Loosely more under the heading of if you like Foy Vance, you might like this, with that comparison being not so much of a stretch, the two being buddies, and Dunlop having produced Vance’s last record, as well as being guitarist in his band.
So, back to the 80’s, and is that Ultravox, as the album opens with the title track, stabbed synth and metronomic percussion? But wait, the vibrato vocal, a touch of Ferry, is this where Roxy were heading, had they ever got beyond Avalon? But there’s a bit more soul, a bit more heart than our Bry, and I’m reminded, briefly, as to who else sings about Avalon. The song itself is a bit of soulful slow burn, accentuated neatly by the electrotrickery, the whole a simmering and almost hymnal entreaty to the, um, his words, animal in his bedroom, driving him wild. A skittering sound, possibly keyboard, possibly strings, introduces Pulling Heaven Down, the other Avalon fella now more clearly a reference, at least in the style, the arrangement managing to be both funky and synthetic. Look Back Smiling then smacks of none so other than peak Paul Young, and I’m liking that, smiling too. A cert for the charts of thirty-five years ago.
Old Friends continues in much the same vein, a song that builds, layer on layer, a gospel feel filtering in, the tune befitting Marc Cohn at his best, before key song, Sorrow, shoves the search for comparisons to one side. An immensely powerful litany for his friend, the film maker Allison Wilke, aka A.W. Gryphon, the lyrics encapsulate his feelings of loss and grief both to her and collectively in his life more generally. Shimmers of echoed keys barely carry his wracked vocal, his voice cracking between the notes. Sticking with this escalation of good songwriting into great, comes Humans, my personal favourite, a dreamy concoction of angst and muted electronica.
By now, Headlights has me realising these are songs that transcend the labels imposed upon them, and that would survive almost any transformative arrangement. But this atmosphere evoked seems the most appropriate, and certainly one that displays his studio talents to the max. My Kind of Heaven perpetuates the combination of tune with technology, perhaps the least polished, aka simplest, song here, yet still reeking of class. In fact, another highlight, and another Irishman, Paul Brady, no less, here comes to mind.
Right About Ready is more of the Roxy late-period ripe berry fruits, if Dunlop is a little rawer of voice by now, sort of bringing the album full circle. Which allows Prisoner Of My Past to then close the proceedings, that feeling ramped high, a white tux surely de rigeur by now, until at least the chorus, which has us all at the back, swaying again in the chapel. A masterful and thoughtful end to a surprising album, more than the blend of its influences and casting a few new out for the future.
Here’s that title track. (And doesn’t he not look a bit how he sounds/you expect. In a good way, I should add.)