Date Printed: March, 1996
By: Andrew Means
Mix the brash directness of punk with the instrumentation of folk and
you have The Pogues, a band that their one-time producer Elvis
Costello is quoted as saying: "saved folk from the folkies."
Now reconstructed as a septet, the London-spawned band has had a checkered history since the mid-'80s when Jem Finer, Spider Stacey and Shane MacGowan forged a career out of a junkpile of street performances and other chance opportunities.
MacGowan, a gifted songwriter, left in 1991. The line-up later saw the arrival and departure of former-Clash frontman Joe Strummer and Terry Woods, veteran of several notable groups, including the first, brief edition of Steeleye Span.
"Pogue Mahone," their latest album, takes its name from the Gaelic phrase for "kiss my ass," which was the band's original name. If the idea here is to indicate a return to the band's early days, it is not altogether borne out by the material. The Pogue's 1985 landmark, "Rum Sodomy & The Lash," excelled in large part because of the emphasis on folk-style songs. What stood out on that album were the group's interpretations of other people's compositions, notably Ewan MacColl's haunting "Dirty Old Town" and one of the best anti-war songs ever written, "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda." The Pogues' own Shane MacGowan approached that standard of writing with his own compositions, "The Old Main Drag" and "A Pair of Brown Eyes."
With the possible exception of "Oretown," none of the new songs are in that class.
And, with the notable exception of a rather pointless, neo-traditional ballad
"Pogue Mahone" draws much of its flavor from the punk side of
its dual persona.
All the same, the vitality - visualize the Clash hosting an Irish ceilidh - is still evident, and there is the emotional honesty that was always the hallmark of the best of punk and of folk. Much of that is due to lead singer Spider Stacy, who gives the lyrics a jolt they don't always have on the printed page.
The instrumentation remains striking too. With a volatile orchestra of banjo, accordion, Irish Uilleann pipes, hurdy gurdy and whistle - not to mention more orthodox axes like guitars and drums - The Pogues avoid sonic ruts. Odes to women form the bulk of the songlist and they vary from the affecting, "Living in a World Without Her," to the perplexing "4 O'clock in the Morning." Written by another longtime Pogue, Andrew Ranken, the latter is one of those songs that leaves too many questions. Who is this baby taken away by ambulance in the early hours and apparently dying on the operating table? Songs don't need to tell all, but they do need to justify themselves.
Another Ranken contribution, "Amadie" - a tribute to a Cajun singer named Amadie Adouin - is an imaginative diversion, compromised slightly by the impression that the band is trying, but can't quite master, a Cajun accompaniment.
Writings from outside the band include a characteristically enigmatic song from early Bob Dylan, "When the Ship Comes In;" Parisian poet Guillaume Apollinaire's "Pont Mirabeau," set to music by Jem Finer and translated by Finer's father; and "How Come," part-penned by the late Ronnie Lane, once of The Faces.
The award for lyric-writing on this release probably should go to Finer for "Oretown," which bears a resemblance to Bruce Springsteen's work in its picture of a grim urban landscape. Unfortunately it doesn't have the strong viewpoint or cohesion of the Boss's best. In that respect the band badly misses MacGowan. Nonetheless, there are some vivid images.