Damian Dempsey is the affable Dubliner who has built a career on writing and performing folk songs on topics as diverse as drug addiction, social injustice, emigration and love. He is the natural heir to balladeers like Luke Kelly, Shane McGowan and Christy Moore.
It’s All Good is a collection of his hits and classics, drawn from six albums over 15 years. It’s a generous selection, featuring 29 tracks, including two new songs, Happy Days and St Patrick’s Brave Brigade.
Moore is the most obvious influence on the earlier material. Indeed, there are times, such as on ‘Canadian Geese’, and ‘Chris and Stevie’, when Dempsey’s vocal mannerisms and enunciation sound uncomfortably close to Moore’s — in the meantime, however, his vocals have gone from strength to strength, and he is now possessed of one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music.
Similarly, much like Moore, Dempsey’s guitar skills do not extend much beyond relentless strumming, which can get tiresome over the course of an entire album. Dempsey is, however, an exceptional and charismatic live performer, capable of raising the roof in venues large and small. He plays to his strengths, sticking to the blueprint that first brought him to public attention, and maintaining the kind of integrity that is all too rare in contemporary music.
It’s All Good demonstrates how well-served Dempsey has been by producer John Reynolds, who has worked with him throughout his career. Reynolds puts Dempsey’s powerhouse voice out front, backed up by arrangements that complement his vocal melodies without overwhelming them. It is to Dempsey’s credit that he still sings in his native accent, and still employs the vernacular of Dublin’s working class in his writing.
There are some lovely moments on the album. The title track, ‘It’s All Good’, features backing vocals from Reynolds’ ex-wife, Sinead O’Connor, and remains as uplifting as when it first appeared on the airwaves back in 2003.
Of the new songs, ‘Happy Days’ is pretty average, but ‘St Patrick’s Brave Brigade’, about the Irish who fought with the Mexican army against the United States in the Mexican-American war of 1846-8, is the kind of material at which Dempsey excels.
* Damien Dempsey plays Cork Opera House tomorrow.
Star Rating: 4/5
Tupelo are a Dublin outfit who style themselves as 'alt folk', which is to say they are MOR with fiddles. Push On is their second album, after Dirt Money in 2011, and is produced by Joe Chester.
As musicians, Tupelo are accomplished — the four members play a range of acoustic instruments that include the dobro, double bass and banjo — if lacking in any great sense of originality. Steve Earle would be one obvious influence, but they lack the Texan's world-weariness and menace. The Waterboys would be another, but it seems Tupelo are only familiar with their more soft-hearted material.
As lyricists, they also tend towards stating the obvious. Old Country, which opens the album, is as sentimental as it gets, with the narrator recalling how "my family worked these sacred fields" - presumably from the perspective of an emigrant to America.
At times, one feels the band are taking their audience on a musical tour of Ireland. Hollow of the Hill is a paean to County Wicklow, where "the crickets hum all around" and "the streams meander and trickle and flow". Roisin's Land stops off in Dublin, where "Behan loiters round the Mountjoy walls/And Jim Larkin stands over you all." The capital is particularly memorable: it's also where the narrator "dreamt of Lynott/He was dancing in the moonlight."
It's hard to shake the feeling that Tupelo have their hearts set on the Irish-American touring circuit. This impression is certainly not dispelled by When the Cockerel Crows, a faux folksong if ever they was one, and the track that, with its talk of how "you can take my land, my livestock, my farm, my cottage too" does them the fewest favours.
Star Rating: 3/5
* Tupelo play Whelan’s, Dublin on Feb 23.