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Flannery’s latest is probing, beautiful

Mick Flannery is not a country singer, but his style sometimes reflects his Nashville start.

By Colleen Taylor

Cork singer Mick Flannery found his sound in Tennessee. Like many of his countrymen, Flannery traveled to the U.S. as a young 20-something looking for a break from college. However, unlike the typical Irish J1 tourist, what Flannery found in the States was the beginnings of a music career. In Nashville, he entered a songwriting competition and won several awards—a turning point he now marks as the launch of his music career. Today, Flannery is considered one of Ireland’s best and most innovative singer-songwriters. Although he might not be getting as much airplay or international attention as Hozier, his work is just as pensive, probing, and melancholy. Flannery’s most recent album, “By the Rule”—released in 2014—is part beatnik, part soul, and a truly original, authentic piece of musical craftsmanship.

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Flannery divides his influences between Ireland and America, Cork and Nashville. Born in Blarney, Flannery now lives in Ennis, Co. Clare. His Irish identity finds musical expression in his poetic lyrics, and in his tender, emotive melodies. Otherwise, however, Flannery’s musical style can be more directly traced to the American folk music scene, and specifically his time spent in Nashville, where he honed his craft and his songwriting abilities. He definitely isn’t a country singer, but Flannery’s style seems to honor his start in Nashville, and every now and again a country-esque flare emerges from his melodies. There’s something Dylan-like about his acoustic stylings as well, but he sings from the heart like an Irish balladeer.

The Cork man released a self-titled EP in 2002. His first full album, “Evening Train,” came in 2005, followed by “White Lies” in 2009. “Red to Blue” in 2012 marks an important moment in the singer’s development: with this album you can hear his maturation into both songwriting and a sophisticated sense of genre, influence and arrangement. Still, his latest album reflects the real moment of formation for the artist.

Flannery’s “By the Rule” is versatile and resists categorization. Some songs sound like they were meant to be played in a piano bar venue off Broadway, while others belong at a folk festival, or even a Cathedral concert. Some even sound from another era—“Out to Sea” strikes me appropriate background music for a tragic moment in a period film. Amidst all this variety, Flannery’s deep, soulful vocals and scaled-back guitar chords create a thematic tie between the songs. “By the Rule” is about Flannery’s voice on its own in its pure, acoustic authenticity. There’s no doubt that his voice’s range, its ability to reach to the deepest pit of the human heart, justifies the simplicity of his acapella arrangements.

The album was written in Berlin, which is fitting. The collection’s darkness, intrigue and sometimes avant-garde inspiration speak to the city’s atmosphere. For me, the real standouts on the album are “The Small Fire” and “Even Now” because they are the most unique—they sound the most like Mick Flannery and no one else. In particular, “Even Now” is something special: it’s so rare and so powerful nowadays to hear the simple combination of soft vocals and a few piano chords.

“By the Rule” is quieter, more mournful than his previous work, such as the upbeat hit track “Gone Forever” off his 2012 album, “Red to Blue.” I wouldn’t recommend a “By the Rule” playlist if you’re looking for a pick-me-up. But like all good art, this album is probing and beautiful. It has an effect. All in all, it affirms the respect Flannery has earned among the music critics and even warrants more far-reaching international buzz for this solo artist.

What Flannery claims to love most about his vocation as a musician is the “creation.” More so than gigging, even recording, for Mick Flannery, it’s about himself, his instruments, and the pen. No doubt about it, “By the Rule” is the work of a creation—a melding of sound and emotion that makes its listener feel.

Mick Flannery is playing all over Ireland this summer. He’ll be at the Doolin Folk Festival and the Killarney Festival in June. For those of us spending summer in the States, however, you can get a taste of Flannery’s work and watch his music videos on mickflannery.ie.

Colleen Taylor writes the "Music Notes" column for the Irish Echo.