This EP is billed as being about ‘what is happening in the world today’, and while it is appropriately bleak, it’s also a very subdued album for the most part. That’s not entirely a bad thing – it comes across as sincere and heartfelt – but it is at its best at low energy. In a strange way, it reminded me of Alan Price’s ‘Between Today and Yesterday’, albeit in an Irish rather than Yorkshire musical idiom.
It takes a while to get going – opener ‘The Way I’m Thinking’ is gloomy, a testament to the pervasive pessimism of the age. ‘Hometown Boy’ was for me the weakest track on the album, and I was never really quite sure whether it was trying to raise the overall energy or not.
Then, by some magic, it all comes together. ‘Blood’ is something really special. Every chorus sent a shiver down my spine, even on repeated listens. It’s nice, in the age of Katy Perry levels of irony, to hear such simple sincerity and honesty in a song, and while the music is as subdued as they come, the quiet only heightens the power of the story. This track is sung by band member Declan Sands, and the way his vocal melody slides off some notes may irritate at first, but stick with it – it’s deliberate, not bad musicianship, and the rest of the song is worth getting used to it for.
‘I’m a Son’ brings the energy up by the pure grace of full-on Irish folk stylings, really highlighting all the talents of the band. The lyrics maybe take a little too long to get to the point, but I look forward to singing along with this one live sometime – which is the key thing, I think, with lively Irish folk songs. Unfortunately, the drop in energy back down to ‘Faces and Names’ lost me on first listen, but the song itself is one hell of a poem. Pay particular attention to the last verse.
I get the slight impression that Gary has some trouble with his brother – ‘Long Way Home’ seems to be a second song about a brother on the down-and-out. It lacks the magic of ‘Blood’ – it feels a little too crafted, maybe even artificial – but it’s still a decent tune.
At seven and a half minutes, closer ‘Streets of Belfast’ takes a long time to tell its story, but it feels right this way. Slow and quiet suits Gary’s musicianship, and his mournful subject matter. It brings out the honesty. I don’t know if the story of this one is true, but it feels like it could be. And there are enough really good moments – a lyric here, a lovely backing vocal there – to make the whole thing well worth your time.
Overall, I’d question the claim to be about modern times. There certainly wasn’t the incisive anger against the Cameron government that I was expecting from the billing, and at least a couple of songs – ‘Hometown Boy’ and ‘Streets of Belfast’ – delve deep into the past. The timelessness might not be a bad thing, though. So much topical music is weary, over-earnest and preachy; by sticking tightly to individual, inescapably personal narratives and leaving value judgements in the background, Gary has avoided that trap and produced an album that, at its best, is extremely moving.
Ghost Town Blues is available to buy from [iTunes]
Rik Davnall came to Liverpool from Manchester (but his dad was born in Merseyside, so that's OK) eight years ago as an undergraduate, and no-one has yet managed to get him to leave. He has played sporadically at open mics and student gigs across the city, on piano or guitar, across a wide range of styles including folk fingerstyle, ragtime, pop classics and acoustic rock. Apart from being a musician, he's also an author and blogger, and about to complete a PhD in philosophy (please don't ask him what kind of job that will get him).