Caolan McCarthy – Paper & Stone: EP Review

Musician/actor Caolan McCarthy channels Elton John (and others) on his debut solo recording.

Release Date:  29th September 2023

Label: Red Stag Records

Formats: CD / Download

You might be familiar with Caolan (pronounced Kee-lin) McCarthy, although maybe not in a musical context.  OK – he’s a Grammy-nominated pianist, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, composer and arranger, but he’s probably best known for his acting exploits.  A RADA-trained actor, he appeared as Uncle Sammie in Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-nominated film, Belfast, and he’s well known around the theatres of the West End and the South Bank, having appeared in numerous stage productions, including The Plough and the Stars at The National Theatre and Once, at The Queens.  Oh – and as if all of that wasn’t enough to fill his day, he also teaches music and drama – most recently at The London Contemporary School of Piano.

Although Caolan has been performing his music live since the age of 15, Paper & Stone is his debut solo recording.  Billed as “A showcase for Caolan’s talents as a singer-songwriter and pianist” it is, in fact quite a lot more than that.  Paper & Stone is a short collection that covers an impressive area of ground over its six tracks.  Alongside the thoughtful piano ballads that I was certainly expecting to hear when I first picked up Paper & Stone, there’s country, gospel, quirky pop and a couple of big soulful ballads that wouldn’t sound out of place on an album like Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection.  Indeed, the spirit of Elton John is a growing presence as the album progresses until, by the time we reach the closing tracks – Tell Me Why and The Show, it almost seems that we’ve unearthed a couple of unknown, unreleased Elton masterpieces.

Caolan and producer Tom Hill have drafted in a small team of excellent musicians to flesh out the sound on Paper & Stone.  Alongside Caolan’s vocals, piano and organ, Tom Connor plays some wonderful guitar and contributes backing vocals, Adam Double plays bass, Chris Duffy drums, James William-Pattison chips in on mandolin, Niall Moore plays brass on a couple of tracks, and the lineup is completed by Kate Robson-Stuart, whose backing vocals are particularly notable on the gospel-flavoured tracks.

Caolan McCarthy

The slow, ponderous passage of piano that introduces opening track, Oregon, belies what turns out to be a lively, country-tinged song with a shuffling drumbeat and a full band accompaniment.  Caolan’s voice is clear and warm, and the sound is as sunny and wide-open as the state of Oregon itself.  Listeners get their first indication of the variety on offer on Paper & Stone with Three Men Were Walkin’ – a gospel/blues number with a driving rhythm.  Caolan’s passionate vocals are backed by sultry organ and Tom Connor adds some interesting guitar fills.

The irresistable Selma McGlone is probably the album’s most immediately accessible track and it’s a good candidate for a lead single, if Caolan feels inclined to go down that route.  It’s bouncy and poppy with sprinklings of brass in just the right places, and Caolin’s piano parts are superb.  But, maybe, it’s the lyrics that make Selma McGlone such a memorable song; the name McGlone is a lyricist’s dream – so many words rhyme with it – and Caolan take full advantage of that rhyming opportunity, sliding in phrases like: “As idle as bone,” “A patron of Rome” and – the line that gave the album its name, “A paper and stone.”  Selma does, indeed, sound like an interesting character, and anyone who smokes her “Superkings on a 2-tone balcony” is OK by me!

Gentle, wistful country waltz-ballad, The Day is, perhaps, the track that comes closest to what I was expecting when I first looked at Paper & Stone. Caolan’s voice and piano hog the spotlight but, listen closer, and you’ll hear some very nice guitar parts part-submerged in the mix.  The blend of guitar and piano in the instrumental section is particularly alluring, and Caolan’s vocal is his best on the album.

Caolan’s voice is not dissimilar to Elton John’s, and the close parallels between Caolan’s music and Elton’s really start to strike home with Tell Me Why.  The song is typical of the southern soul influences that featured so strongly in Elton John’s early career; Tom Connor’s guitar licks have a Steve Cropper edge to them, and Caolan’s bar-room piano solo is tremendous.  And that Elton John feel is carried over into the collection’s closing track, The Show.  Served up in three parts, The Show is almost an epic and the rousing finale with its refrain: “I know you’re sick and tired of being lonely” is something that sticks around, long after the last bars have played out.

Paper & Stone is an excellent debut – what took you so long, Caolan?

Listen to Oregon, the album’s opening track, here:

Caolan McCarthy online: Instagram / Spotify / Bandcamp

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