Less the Pogues with ADHD, or Dubliners on helium, the Wallopers show themselves to be their own men (and woman), mixing tears and sweat in equal measure.
Release Date: 6th October 2023
Label: BC Records
Format: CD / vinyl / cassette / digital
The biggest craic here may be the crack in the credulity of anyone unprepared, buoyed along purely by the hype, expecting to find anything much that is akin to rock music. So fair play, then, to the Mary Wallopers, who have released one of the most riveting releases of the year. And if you thought the band a one-trick pony, with last October’s eponymous debut, be prepared to swallow your preconceptions. For, if you were expecting any drift to the mainstream, you’re on the wrong bank of the Castlebank River, flowing through their hometown of Dundalk; this is a step deeper and dirtier into the, forgive me, bog. And it is wonderful.
I am reminded of Jonathan Richman’s Rock and Roll with the Modern Lovers, another record that wrongfooted many a regiment of hipsters, all of those people, like me, up to the minute with all the trends and styles of modern music. ‘Softened’ by earlier and slightly more orthodox material, Richman’s lurch into the leftfield was astonishing and uplifting. So, for this one , all that stuff about “the Pogues with ADHD” may have made you know what you’re getting, but I guarantee some potential raising of the eyebrows, ahead the likely grin.
A brief flourish of acoustic guitar opens the album, before Charles Hendy solemnly intones: “O, here I am, from Paddy’s land, the land of high renown“, celebrating/offending from the start. An old song, and once in the repertoire of Tommy Makem, the main thrust is around quite what a catch the “holligan, rolligan, swolligan, molligan bold O’Donahue” might or should be, even to the son of Queen Victoria. Lyrics apart, the arrangement, once it accelerates is a solid banjo and whistle roustabout, that could bear comparison with the Lullabye of New York hitmakers themselves, the bass and drums each adding a reliable, if perfunctory, bottom end. Listen carefully and there are some uilean pipes in the mix.
No messing, it is to The Holy Ground that they head, sticking broadly to the Dubliners’ arrangement, five string banjo the lead instrument. If the chorus becomes a bit of a hooley shoutfest, this song of sailors and their longing for home, there’s precious little to suggest any new direction. In fact, the’ve played a fast one, and gone the full retro. The banjo is Hendy’s brother, Andrew, who along with Sean McKenna, guitar, make the triumvirate core of the band, with accordion coming via Seamas Hyland. Finnian O’Connor is yer man for the pipes and whistles, with Keven Mooney and the redoubtable Roisin Barrett the engine room of drums and bass, respectively. (I am reliably informed that the Holy Ground in question, rather than their mammy’s homestead, rather it is Cork’s red light district…)
Rakes Of Poverty puts feet under the table of their mastery of the daft with the deft, with the band now warmed up and cooking for this further ancient tune. Take your mind and listen underneath the vocals, just to hear how solidly meshed together is the instrumentation, the rhythm section now really hitting their stride and anything other than perfunctory. Another song that celebrates the drink, or, more specifically, the thirst for it only the poor can truly have, one feels their may be an emerging pattern here. Sticking to a similar menu, as in the travails of the poor, The Rich Man And The Poor Man, and, yes, it too has a lengthy history. Over the beat of a bodhrán, we get the sorry trajectory of each character, and their destinations after death, no guesses as to which goes where, With an odd device, whereby each line ends in a sort dog Latin, tableium, hotelium etc, the tune and delivery is much as for that highlight of the earlier disc and live shows, Hamish Imlach’s Cod Liver Oil And The Orange Juice. With each character duly dispatched to Hellium and Heavenium, the band can’t resist in adding a new line or two to any version you might ever have heard. Maybe not one for your maiden aunt Bernie, however fond of the Clancy Brothers she might ever have been.
Realising that it is possible to have too much of such ribaldry, at least on record, the mood now drops a notch for The Idler, a serious song that, even if it sticks to the same MO, is delivered in a way that might have Dick Gaughan wondering quite when he wrote or performed it. Clearly, neither, it being a band original, from the pen of Sean McKenna, and is a sobering listen. Not tarrying too long in thoughtfulness, mind, for Madam, I’m A Darling is a near doggerel ditty, perhaps best known in the version by John Doyle, here as much a rhythmic clatter of noise and instruments, graced by a wondrous pipe and whistles middle eight. It could almost be an ancient sharecropper blues from the fields, both in the singing and the playing. Vultures Of Christmas then delivers an unexpected kidney punch of gaunt reality:”You can’t pay the rent with a candle“. Another original, this time from Charles Hendy, the contrast between the original songs and those ratcheted out the tradition, is immense, in substance, at least, if not style.
The Turfman From Ardee, gets a full band reprise, away from the slightly more stripped back version on Mouthful Of The Wallopers, the early self-released EP that first thrust them on unsuspecting ears. A glorious rattle, the rhythm evokes the wheels of a cart, slotting well into Hot Asphalt, a song with links to many on the debut full length, delineating the trials and tribulations of the itinerant navvy, building the structure of the land. These two tracks sit together snug, the construction of each redolent, at least in my imagination, of a late 60’s pub session in Kentish Town.
Which takes us to what many might see as the highwater mark of this disc, Pecker Dunne’s Wexford Town. The Hendy’s and McKenna certainly don’t hold back their respect and admiration for the writer, and for the traveller tradition in general, Dunne being one of the better known secrets from this sometimes shunned sector of Irish society. “It touches on (Dunne’s) upbringing and on the grief that travelers suffer in Ireland which is something that’s not really talked about much.” It is a stunning song, sweet and poignant, despite the struggle, with neither bitterness or resentment.
Appreciating any song is going to struggle after that, I fear The Blarney Stone is just a tad too much of a join the dots Auld Oirish, that feeling reprised, and some, for the overly parodic pastiche of Rothsea-O, with farts, coughs and comedic asides to give some local colour. They’d perhaps have been better sticking to the less embellished version from Mouthful of Wallopers. It’s a shame, as it takes the jokier side , undoubtedly important, of their palette a step too far, at least for me. Six pints down, in a live setting, I may feel different. The risk is that the listener may thus leave it there, forgoing the beauty of Andrew Hendy’s Gates Of Heaven, a Guthrie-esque ballad that closes the album with an ironic lift: “If the gates of heaven opened wide, I’d love to have a look who’s inside…….”
Give or take the odd overstep, I think the Mary Wallopers have done a sterling job here, feeding their potent poteen to the masses, as they climb the slippery pole of an unlikely success. And for every stout-sodden singalong, there is enough sober morning after judgment to sustain the brew of both. Having nailed their name to many a festival flag this summer, they are shortly to launch into the UK and Ireland leg of their biggest tour by far, having already to switch several venues, to satisfy demand. I’ll be there!
Here’s a taster, Wexford (Town), and, yes, the bearded fella in the backdrop screen is Pecker Dunne, the author, himself: