Rewarding reinvention of Dublin legend evokes memories of classic Irish acts, all framed within an acidic self judgement.
Release date: 6th September 2022
Label: Gentlemen Recordings
Format: CD / digital
A name new to me, Doctor Millar, aka Seàn, has gradually been building a bit of a name across the Irish Sea. This is his sixth release and should be utter catnip to anyone with a penchant for that hazy hinterland where rock and folk meet and exchange pleasantries, yet still challenge each other. Starting his career in 80’s rootsy rock’n’rollers, the (nice name) Cute Hoors, who made a slight ripple in London’s Irish bars of the time, he has mainly worked since in the Dublin theatre. With the double whammy of a nation in lockdown and his own personal health issues, the 20s brought about some necessary downtime to regroup and revitalise. As seems so often the case, this getting his head together in the country found a hitherto less broadly appreciated love of the tradition, the music and forms of his native land. Having some influential chums around to buff up this part of his muse could neither cause any harm. As you will hear.
Nine songs, new songs all, which match his idiosyncratic lyrics to timeless thematic signatures that hark back to the golden days of the Irish traditional renaissance of the 1970s. You will hear echoes of Planxty, echoes of Van, a bit of Mike Scott, some Andy White, but all through osmosis and absorption, rather than any slavish apeing of their catalogue. These are gentle songs, no folk punk thrash, and it is entirely gorgeous.
Opener, Look What She Threw Away, comes in with a flourish of bouzouki that immediately comforts the mind, with the cosy, wholesome ambience of a pub session in Skibbereen. If Millar is channeling a slightly less abrasive Andy Irvince, the knowledge it is Donal Lunny on the bouzouki makes it all the more perfect. A slightly shambolic penny whistle solo adds to the ragged beauty of this modern lament. Using the metaphor of a year, it describes how setting your goals in December may be too late. Some mercurial clip clop piano, from Liam O Maonlaí, no less, features in Communion Money, along with some elegaic banjo from Bill Whelan. A classic reminisce in the style of George Ivan at his poetic peak, Millar’s vocals are here a wistful croon, and, as backing vocals gradually rise in the distance, it feels a conceptual blend of Coney Island and Jackie Leven’s Stopped By The Woods On A Snowy Night. Dublin Girl now evokes the spirit of John Prine, and is graced by an old-timey string band arrangement, heavy on the fiddle and a cantering banjo.
‘I’m talking to what’s left of Danny McCoy” is the gaunt opening line from Danny McCoy, the haunting elegy to a childhood friend. With more of O Maonlaí’s piano, this sad song sticks fast, a testament to the lasting legacy of brotherhood. This album is really getting under the skin by now, astonished there hasn’t been more shouts about Millar over the years. “(We can go) dee-ee-eee-ee-eee-ee-eep” is all he has to say to sum up all the shared experiences, if with some bitter remonstrance about the person, he, Millar, might have become. Oof! The title track then doesn’t pick up the mood any, either, a harmonica moan-laden song of mental self harm, how you can destroy yourself in convictions of being different, too different to make anything work or happen. “You stupid child…..” Oof again. Guitar and harmonica provide a faltering dance, as the song fades, to underline the horror. Unhappy Woman, with Lunny back in the fray, is scarcely any lighter, the child of the previous song now taking the rap for the person this song addresses. Maybe with more insight, or I hope so.
This triad of starkness gets a break, at last, with another old-timey hoe down, Keep This To Yourself. Millar describes his influences as Planxty and the Velvet Underground, which is no small contrast. This song suggests he is no stranger either to the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, nothing to be ashamed of. Amateur Night stays stateside, a slow country waltz, his light vocal showing all the bruises and bumps of success on the downside. It feels all way too autobiographical. I’m minded here of one of Steve Forbert’s early tales of everyday life, but with a greater added fragility. The slightest track so far, it still has a spare charm that lingers. Flow Sacred Magical closes proceedings in a flutter of guitars and piano, freight train harmonica the main voice here, it being an instrumental, to slowly put together all the thoughts this set instils in the listener.
Touted as an Irish National Treasure by the Irish Times and Ireland’s best lyricist by Hot Press, let’s get him some love over here.
Here’s Communion Money as a taste: