One of the prickliest subjects with musicians is that fine line between ‘being influenced by’ and being ‘derivative of’ a famous band. Any band that is deemed to be chasing a trend is put down as the musical equivalent of an ambulance chasing lawyer; shunned by those of us who have that touch of musical snobbery about us – both in the press and the music buying public (whose opinions are of course often informed by what the press write about a band). I can be as guilty of this as the next man, and can’t always explain why I will like one band and not like another, similar band. For example, I am a Pearl Jam fan, and I love Stone Temple Pilots but detest Creed – both of whom were at times vilified by the press as, at the very least, hanging on the coat tails of Pearl Jam’s success. I can’t explain why Creed cross a certain line in the sand for me, that S.T.P. don’t.
And now, as a reviewer of bands, local ones at that, I am confronted with this issue time and time again. I listen to local bands and know instantly who their influences are and it’s hard to avoid making comparisons in any review. Hard also to avoid the trap of being over-critical of a band maybe because they are too alike to a name band or, conversely praising a band too much, even though I may realise that –in the big scheme of things – that band will be immediately disregarded by the national press and music industry as nothing more than ‘our wee version of’.
It is with all this in mind that I embark on my review of Co. Londonderry’s PORTS debut album – ‘The Devil is a Songbird’. It is an album I asked to review, given that I have followed the band since, well, since before they were even called PORTS. The cliché ‘eagerly awaited’ album really does apply to this album for me. So, is all this preamble building up to a fall? No. Not at all. Honestly. Well…
‘The Devil is a Songbird’ is a classy album, full of well-written, lushly recorded songs. The songs have meaning, with lyrics that echo the best of Irish lyricism down through the years. The production is slick and immediate, without being overdone. It allows the songs to breathe and thus creates the atmosphere that befits the songs. The album is not one-paced, there are just enough mood and time changes to stop the album becoming soporific. PORTS are not a dance band (or worse, a non-dance band trying to be a dance band) but they do inject life into their songs when required without over-egging the pudding.
But, the band is what it is and that is a band whose material is based mostly around the piano-written, therefore piano-driven music as the vehicle for the voice of Steven McCool. And those vocals are sweet, wistful and often falsetto. This being so, there is no escaping that many will try to compare PORTS to that band from England with a lead singer who sings a lot of songs at his piano, often in falsetto – and whose albums are increasingly dominated by that sound, with guitars almost an afterthought at times. Yes. The C word. Coldplay. There. I’ve said it out loud now and PORTS are probably going to score me off their Christmas card list for doing so.
Even more so given that, having once been a reasonably big fan of Coldplay, I now cannot abide them. Their music leaves me totally cold (pardon the pun). I also know that, despite their success, which seems no sign of abating, Coldplay are seen as totally un-cool. So, PORTS may hate me for comparing them to a band I no longer like and who are viewed now in the same bracket as Phil Collins and James Blunt.
So, how can I say that they sound like a band I hate and then praise their album? Is that not a contradiction for me to say that? Is it me being a local journo, being over-supportive? Am I praising them because they are local? Would I not slag off a mainland band who sounded like this?
No. Dammit. I am not being contradictory. They are not aping Coldplay. It’s just either a conscious or unconscious influence but, I am also sure that they are just as influenced by Elbow, Nick Cave and others. And, when all that gets distilled, and the band’s writers sit down at the piano to write, this is what comes out the other end. In all honesty, I feel PORTS are more Elbow in philosophy than Coldplay. They are storytellers more than, well, whatever it is that Coldplay is.
More importantly, there are lots of people out there who love this type of classy pop music, who buy Coldplay and Elbow albums; People who like to have this type of atmosphere in their music, who don’t need or want buzz-saw guitars, monster riffs, edgy lyrics all wrapped up in a dangerous image. This is what they want. Thoughtful music. Music to sit down and consider as opposed to rock out to or bounce up and down to. I know I need this type of music as part of my music library, I just have fallen out of love with Coldplay and their current direction. But I’m still a fan of Elbow, still a fan of songwriters who have a more ambient feel to their music.
So why shouldn’t I praise this classy album by a local band? Answer: no reason. Why shouldn’t local fans support PORTS? Answer : no reason. The reasons to like and support PORTS are all here. Those reason are otherwise known as songs and, for me, my rule/mantra is (and will forever remain) that ‘a good song, is a good song, is a good song’. I no longer care if a band sounds awfully like another band, (even though I have spent the better part of this review talking about it). All I care about is, if I like the songs or not. Given that I have lived with this album for a month (I’ve had a few problems, don’t ask), I can only say that I have become very fond of this group of songs. I find myself singing the choruses and refrains in my head – the strident ‘Remedies’, the melancholy title track (complete with wonderful whistling) and ‘I’d Let You Win’, the moody ‘In Summer’, the modern celtic sound of ‘Few & Far Between’, the bitter ‘Gameplay’ and the quirky, irreverent, departure of the album closer, ‘What’s on Your Mind’.
Glad we’ve got that all sorted. Haven’t we?
‘The Devil is a Songbird’ is available now and has been shortlisted for the NI MUSIC prize. It richly deserves this reward.