I had picked up on the Mates of State on their prior album, Re-Arrange Us. It caught my attention but I didn’t love it. But it was good enough that I started looking into their back catalogue and keeping an eye on their future.
In case you don’t know them, Mates of State is a Connecticut spousal unit that delivers joyous DIY pop without any irony or gimmicks. This kind of earnestness generally captures sneers from cynics and rockists. It might have been deserved on Re-Arrange Us and their follow up covers compilation, but not on Mountaintops.
On Mountaintops, Mates of State keep the great melodies but ditch the preciousness. From the starburst of a song Palomino to the restrained Unless I’m Lead, Mountaintops has enough distinctly enjoyable songs to earn its way into regular listening. Or at least, I listen to it regularly.
I had to start somewhere, so why not here? I rescued this album out of the 2 for $3 bin at a local record shop earlier this year. Ultravox was a new wave outfit out of London that saw some success in the early 80’s. I really only knew them for the hyper-emotional track Dancing With Tears in My Eyes that appeared on a few compilations over the years and hadn’t given them much more thought until I came across this record.
Vienna is the definition of an early 80’s synth-pop/rock album. It’s a collection of songs that reflect a range of styles and influences which makes it almost sound like a compilation album. New Europeans is a mix of pompy guitars and keyboards while Mr. X is a cold, futuristic ballad that would have fit in nicely on any late 70’s Kraftwerk album. Vienna is the standout track on the album. It is a bit of an epic — full of long pauses, dramatic orchestration, and bursts of emotion in every vocal note.
I actually play this album far more than I thought I would. A lesson for me as I really had low expectations when I spotted it in that 2 for $3 bin.
On their first two efforts, Red Roses For You, and Rum, Sodomy, and The Lash, The Pogues established themselves as one of the most interesting, if novel, bands in post-punk London. The band, led by Shane MacGowan, traded fuzzbox guitars for mandolins and pipes to create a sound as powerful as any, more “mainstream”, punk band ever did. On If I Should Fall From Grace With God, The Pogues moved from being rough and tumble, to being brilliant. Perhaps they knew this when they included an image of writer and fellow Irish ex-pat James Joyce, on the cover of the album.
The album opens with the title track, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”. It explodes out of the gates like stallions in a horse race. Legs fly everywhere and the motion is a blur, but the lyrics bob above the fray to see it through. It is an empowering song about defiance in the face of death. “Turkish Song of The Damned” carries on this notion. There is no rest for the wicked as the next track, “Bottle of Smoke”, picks up on the momentum launched by the title track. It this case, the song is about a horse race. It is a profanity laden tale of money riding on hopes and dreams. But the next track on the album stunned us all.
“Fairytale of New York” has become a modern standard. It is the story of two recent Irish immigrants falling in love on the streets of New York. The song begins with our protagonist being led into the drunk tank on Christmas Eve. He reflects on the events leading up to that night. He had won a bet on a horse race (“Got on a lucky one/Came in eighteen to one”) and got wild with promises to his girl (as sung by the brilliant Kristy McColl). “This year’s for me and you/So happy Christmas/I love you baby/ I can see a better time/When all our dreams come true.” But with all highs, come the lows. The booze takes its natural course and the words of the drunken lovers become bitter.
Her: “You’re a bum/You’re a punk”
Him: “You’re an old slut on junk/Living there almost dead on a drip in that bed”
Her: “You scum bag/You maggot/You cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your arse/I pray God it’s our last”
Like any great romantic story, there is some redemption at the end. The sparring calms and the couple opens up to one another about regrets and aspirations.
Him: “I could have been someone.”
Her: “So could anyone./You took my dreams from me when I first found you”
Him: “I kept them with me babe/I put them with my own/Can’t make it all alone/I’ve built my dreams around you.”
The rest of the album is very strong. No self-respecting drunken blowout would be complete without the rollicking Spanish-themed “Fiesta” blasting late in the night. The Pogues also managed to include songs about the politics of Anglo-Irish relations (Birmingham Six, Streets of Sorrow) as well as the quiet contemplation of a Springtime stroll (Lullaby of London).
If I Should Fall From Grace With God was the artistic peak for The Pogues. Shane MacGowan’s drinking and erratic behavior grew worse and degraded the quality of his songwriting and vocals in the following years. Hells Ditch and Peace & Love were good but did not live up to the standard of If I Should Fall. At the wrap of Hell’s Ditch, MacGowan left the band (or was kicked out depending on which version you believe). The Pogues continued and released two mediocre albums, Waiting for Herb, and Pogue Mahone. They have since disbanded. Shane MacGowan has released several solo albums but they pale in comparison to his work in the mid-80’s with The Pogues. Like most good things, quality is rarely duplicated. If I Should Fall From Grace With God is such a flash of artistic perfection that we shouldn’t expect another.