Friday, August 27, 2010

Don’t Judge!

This morning, while I was eating a bowl a cereal, I flipped on the Today show just as Katy Perry was taking the stage. And while I was rolling my eyes at her outfit, the stage props (was that supposed to be a cloud? Or gigantic cotton candy?), and surreal dancing bears, I suddenly had a flashback to the mid-90s and realized I couldn’t judge.

As I’ve said before, I went to Ireland inspired by earthy traditional music played on accordions and fiddles, tin whistles and bodhrán drums. I found all that, and it was marvelous. And then, there was this:

I’m cheating a bit this week, because the Spice Girls aren’t Irish — but in Galway during the fall of 1996, it seemed nearly impossible to escape them. One of my earliest memories after arriving in town is turning on the television in my apartment, seeing the official video for “Say You’ll Be There” (the one set in the Mojave Desert), and thinking, “what the...?” But it wasn’t long (probably that weekend) before I was dancing to — and singing along with — their songs like everyone else. Sure, you could go down to The Crane or the Club Áras na nGael for an amazing trad session, but just as often, it was pop music that spilled out of clubs and pubs as you walked down the street at midnight.

It was the constantly shifting combinations of traditional and contemporary culture that I found most exciting and confusing about living in Galway. On a Tuesday night, I might go to an Irish language class and then set dancing at Monroe’s. Then on Saturday, it might be a night out at the GPO and dancing to more pop music than I’d heard since the 8th grade. Back in the States, my friends were mortified that I knew all the words to Spice Girl songs. But I was so surprised by the idea of a Europop, gin-soaked, neon-tinged Galway that there was nothing to do but embrace it with enthusiasm.

Katy Perry’s Today show stage featured larger-than-life candy — a fitting metaphor for the pop music that can become our guilty pleasure. When it’s done well, it’s music that makes us dance even as we check to make sure no one catches us in Top 40 indulgence. It may not have much substance, but it’s a sweet treat and the sugar buzz can make you feel invincible for up to four minutes.

It’s the last week of summer, people. What the heck? Here’s another one.

Have fun.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

“Cúirt Bhaile Nua” (Colm Mac Con Iomaire)

Before I went to Ireland, I would listen to traditional music and imagine myself standing on a green, windswept hillside, with the sound of pipes in the distance and smoke rising out of the chimney of a charming cottage nearby. I thought of high kings at the Hill of Tara and great legendary and mythical figures: Brian Ború, Cúchulainn, Queen Medb. And I dreamed of standing at a cliff’s edge, gazing resolutely into the distance, while waves crashed into the rocks below.

Imagine my satisfaction when I went to Ireland and was able to live out all of these visions — with a few alterations, of course. There was plenty of standing on green, windswept hillsides, though it lacks a certain something without the pipes and the cozy cottage setting. It doesn’t take long before you start to feel like an idiot for being cold and windswept (and most likely rained on) when any sane person is in the pub having a pint.

I also spent one glorious summer afternoon at the Hill of Tara, seat of the ancient high kings, which turned out to be a set of otherwise unremarkable undulating hills situated next to a busy visitor’s center. And none of my fantasies had involved the swarming masses of tourists always present at the Cliffs of Moher — except for the time I went in January and the wind blew so hard, you had to be especially careful not to get too close to the edge. There’s no resolute gazing when you’re gripping a rock wall in terror. (My friend might look happy in this photo, but I’m sure he was terrified on the inside.)

All of this is the long way around to saying that having a crush on a country is a bit like having a crush on a person. The better you get to know it, the more it will disappoint and delight you in unexpected ways. The end result may be even better than what you originally dreamed of, but it is still different, and something to get used to.

Listening to Colm Mac Con Iomaire’s version of “Cúirt Bhaile Nua (The Court of New Town)” brings back all those old dreams and visions. Which I don’t think is such a bad thing after all. They represent a longing to connect with a place, or a period of time, or a people that might not really exist anymore, except in a spirit that you can still sense in intangible ways — or in tangible cultural elements that remain with us thanks to artists like Colm.

Gaeilge (Irish) is also one of those things that, to put it plainly, I love about Ireland. Colm, who is also the violinist for The Frames and The Swell Season, tells a lovely story as Gaeilge (in Irish) about the title of his solo album, The Hare’s Corner, in this video from TG4.

Finally, in the clip below, you’ll notice that Colm says that this song is typically sung unaccompanied in the sean nós (old style) tradition. So please also be sure to check out the second video as well — an amazing clip of Nora McDonagh singing “Cúirt Bhaile Nua” as Gaeilge. The two songs actually sound nothing alike, but I’m taking it on faith that they’re two versions of the same beautiful thing.


Colm Mac Con Iomaire

Nora McDonagh

Friday, August 13, 2010

"Seven Day Mile" (The Frames)

The Frames are an Irish indie rock band that have been kicking around for the past twenty years. Since 2007-ish, when Marketa Irglova is added, voila! They become The Swell Season. The two bands sound similar, and different. The Frames is The Swell Season, and The Swell Season is The Frames, except when they are not. As I recently read on another blog, they are two sides of the same coin.

I haven’t seen The Frames live, but they’re touring this fall. It will be interesting to see what kind of sound they have without Marketa. As the old saying goes, you can’t go home again. It seems to me that it would be impossible to go back to being the same band they were before — before Glen and Marketa made the movie Once, before their Oscar win, before they moved from a harder edge to a more mellow folk sound. Surely they have been affected personally and professionally by all the changes brought about by the past few years, and those changes are sure to come through in the music.

As I’ve said before, part of my inspiration for falling in love with Ireland was my infatuation with all types of Irish music, beginning in my early teens. The irony of that is, when I lived in Galway in the ‘90s, my relationship with music essentially ended. Or, I should say that my musical experience at home and my musical experience in Ireland were dramatically different. All the intricacies of those differences is a story for another day, but the short version is that I never heard of The Frames until Once came out. How did I miss this band? In 1996, the year I arrived in Galway, Fitzcarraldo was released by ZTT Records and went to #26 on the Irish charts. I always tell people that if a band wasn’t playing the university’s reading room, then I missed them. But that hardly seems like an excuse. (It’s also a little disingenuous, but that, too, is a story for another day.)

In any case, I am now doing my best to catch up. I was familiar with “Seven Day Mile” before The Swell Season played it at the Nelsonville Music Festival last May, but only after filming this clip did I sit down and study the lyrics. What a beautiful song. In another clip, Glen Hansard introduces this song by saying that it’s about checking in with someone to say, “I’m thinking about you. Are you alright? I hope you get better. I’d help you in a more practical way if I could, but all I can do is send you a song.”

Sometimes, though, sending a song is really the only thing you can do. With that in mind, these lines in particular resonate with me:

Well this might take a while to figure out
So don’t you rush it
And hold your head up high right through the doubt
‘Cause it’s just a matter of time
You’ve been running so fast
It’s the seven day mile
Has you torn in between here and running away

I think we all face times when we feel torn between here and running away. And when my mother died, I often found myself thinking, “It’s been two weeks/two months/a year ... I should be over this.” But sometimes things take a while to figure out. Some things are harder to get through than others. And some people need more time than others. That’s all. I don’t think there are any answers here, which is what I love about this song. It’s like my husband — when something comes up, sometimes he’ll say, “Well, I’ll be here.” That didn’t make any sense to me for a long time. “What does that even mean?” I would say. Then, over a chunk of years, a whole bunch of tough stuff went down, and he was there all along. And then I got it. He didn’t have any answers, but he was there. That’s all. That’s everything.


Friday, August 6, 2010

“Listen Girl” and “Heyday” (Mic Christopher)

The first time I heard “Listen Girl” was while watching the video on YouTube. So for me, the song will forever be associated with a group of friends kicking around New York, exploring and discovering and just being young and happy.

The video reminds me of a similar day in the summer of 1995. But instead of Irish friends in New York, this was a group of American friends in Ireland. I’d met Fionnuala, Nate, Rob, and Mike a week or two before I took this photo in Galway. But for those two weeks, and the rest of the summer, we were inseparable. We traveled all over the country, exploring and discovering and just being young and happy.

It’s easy to think of those days in Ireland as our heyday. But when Mic introduces “Heyday” in the clip below, he says he wondered why there has to be “a time when you’re great, and the rest of the time you’re not.” So “this is basically about every day being your best day.”

Why can’t every day be our heyday? I try to remember that now. These days, much of my time may be spent folding laundry or making dinner, but I’m surrounded by the deep love of family and friends that makes life so rich. The spirits of those who have gone before us carry us through each day, and in the evenings, the summer sun dips into the fields, casting the world around us in glorious blue and gold. Back in Galway in ’95, that was our heyday then. And this is our heyday now.


“Listen Girl”