John Francis Flynn's fairly avant-garde approach takes a group of old songs and realizes them in a beautifully modern way. [Photo by Ellius Grace.]
Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
The young people of today’s Dublin are singing out. With bands and singers like Lankum, Varo, Ye Vagabonds, Lisa O’Neill, Landless, and Daoirí Farrell (in addition to the many I just don’t know about), as well as “The Night Before Larry Got Stretched” singing collective, all doing new, interesting, and very grounded things, there’s always something cool to hear.
In among this mix is the band Skipper’s Alley – its members seem to be involved in everything. For example, their bodhrán and guitar player Macdara Yeates was one of “Larry’s” founders and he runs the “Covid-19 Conference Call Session,” an innovative zoom singing session I wrote about here last summer. Their fiddle and viola player Ultan O’Brien has, among other things, appeared on Varo’s latest album. (And see below!)
Then there’s John Francis Flynn. A singer with a bold voice and an ear for good songs, Flynn’s also a fine flute, whistle, and guitar player. A mainstay at the Cobblestone Pub, he’s distinguished himself on both Skipper’s Alley records and (among other things) even had a bit part on Lankum’s second release. (Good music just seems to run in that family; readers may remember that sister Sarah released the brilliant album “The Housekeepers” with Doireann Glackin in 2019.)
Flynn is on the cusp of releasing his debut solo album, “I Would Not Live Always.” In last week’s column, I mentioned the video for “My Son Tim,” the album’s first single (which features Skipper’s Alley bandmate Paddy Cummins). It’s really interesting and I wrote then of my excitement for the full album. Surprisingly, I was able to get an advance copy of the album and over the past few days have been giving it a close listen. It’s outstanding. On it, Flynn taking a bold, risky and fairly avant-garde approach that selects a group of old songs and realizes them in a beautifully modern way.
The album flows from track to track like a dream. While Flynn’s voice is central here – his singing sounds warm and familiar, as you would expect to hear from a ballad singer – his musicality is buoyed by synthesizer and tape loops throughout, composed and arranged by Ross Chaney. These add color – sometime comforting, at other times, jarring – that in combination with the more traditional instruments here give this album its character and become a central feature of its overall sound.
You hear this right away in “Lovely Joan,” the album’s first track, which is terrific. The keyboard sound that opens it (played by Phil Christie) tells us that this album offers something different. Paired with a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, the contrast between the two sounds, ancient and modern, sets the tone moving forward.
There are several standout tracks here. “My Son Tim” is excellent. The relentless percussion gives this song drive, but it’s made even more intense with rich feedback that (to my ears, anyway) recalls Jimi Hendrix. It holds together on its own well and is a logical first single. I also quite like “Shallow Brown,” a sea shanty sung delivered, it seems, from the perspective of a slave. Here, Consuelo Breschi (Varo) provides fine harmony vocals and Ultan O’Brien (Skipper’s Alley) good fiddle accompaniment. “Come My Little Son,” a Ewan MacColl song delivered in a more conventional way and the album’s closing track, is also excellent.
The cover of “I Would Not Live Always,” the solo album debut from a singer with a bold voice.
The album includes a couple of instrumentals in “Tralee Gaol” and “Chaney's Tape Dream.” On the former, Flynn plays the tune on a pair of whistles simultaneously with great intensity – it’s exciting to listen to. The latter begins like a slow air from space before settling in and out of more organized tunes. With Chaney, he leans very heavily on tape loops, giving this track an ethereal, otherworldly sound.
However, for me the album’s high point is “Bring Me Home, pts. i-iii,” a three-track set piece built using the songs “The Dear Irish Boy,” “I Would Not Live Always,” and “An Buachailín Bán.” These are songs of exile and return that Flynn delivers with great sensitivity, passion, and poise. Each “movement” feels quite different from the other, the first delivered in straightforward manner, the second with extensive looping and signal processing, and the third an impressionist soundscape in which the words are delivered by sean nós singer Saileog Ní Ceannabháin. It’s a dramatic suite and a powerful segment of the album.
“I Would Not Live Always” is a very strong release from a singer whose time seems to have arrived. This is an immersive experience that has one foot in contemporary trends and one in deep dive balladry, and finds a way to walk a solid path. Congrats to Flynn on this new album - it is excellent. Two thumbs up – check it out! “I Would Not Live Always” will be released July 30 on River Lea, a division of Rough Trade Records. Visit ffm.to/johnfrancisflynn to view the full range of preorder/presave options.