Most bands have to overcome any number of trials and tribulations in their struggle to make it, but I doubt if many would include the sheer act of staying alive among their list of dues paid. However, if reports haven’t been exaggerated, near fatalities almost seem to go hand-in-hand with the Dublin alt-folk quartet The Young Folk.
Keyboard player Paul Butler briefly stopped breathing after suffering an asthma attack and was told he was just minutes away from death, drummer Karl Hand had to be wrestled away from a wall after getting an electric shock from a faulty socket and bassist/mandolin player Tony McLaughlin was run over by a car. McLaughlin’s relationship with A&E doesn’t end there. He’s been the victim of three unprovoked attacks, variously resulting in a broken nose, broken cheekbone, fractured eye socket, split palette and concussion. One attack left him briefly unable to remember how to play his mandolin.
Not that the litany of accidents ends there. Having recovered from the electric shock, Karl’s hand got trapped under a stack of palettes at work, leaving him unable to hold a drumstick for several weeks, while singer and guitarist Anthony Furey (and, yes, he is related to the legendary Irish folk The Fureys, George being his father and Finbar, Eddie and the late Paul his uncles) burst his ear drum playing football as a kid and is now practically deaf in one ear.
Add to this the fact that they’ve had several near misses in the car while travelling to gigs and you get the feeling that while they’re incredibly unlucky, they’re also incredibly blessed. Fate clearly has good reasons for keeping them alive. Recorded at Dublin’s Charthouse studios, their debut album The Little Battle patently being one of them.
Irish magazine, Hot Press, likened them to Fleet Foxes, Mumford and Sons and The Low Anthem, but listening to Furey’s warblingly adenoidal lilt perhaps a more immediate vocal comparison would be Mike Scott. Indeed, there’s more than a touch of The Waterboys to the music, kicking off with the My Friends, the multi-harmony line ‘my friends told me’ repeated several times before Karen Hickey’s fiddle sweeps in and an upbeat chugging rhythm starts to roll along, carrying guitars and piano on its tracks with a lyric about not letting friendships slip away as we grow older. The same’s true of the melodics and use of fiddle on Biscuits, a bittersweet ‘can we start over?’ number (“All I know is you like Christmas, but it wasn’t so good last year”) that reflects the album’s generally reflective (images of home loom large), wistful lyrical and musical mood.
A past single, Way Home was inspired by Furey’s time on the road with his dad, the drums picking up pace and the song gathering to a joyous scurry as he sings about coming back for good; a hint of the young Van Morrison might well be detected. Simple nimble fingerpicked acoustic guitar accompanies the regret-stained I’ve Been Here Before, a drunkard’s self-doubt lament about screwing up past relationships, poignantly summed up in the line ‘I see that you’ve got your new couch, and it’s leather, life’s getting better for you. Well please don’t drag me out, cos I’m just sitting, I just want to try it out”.
It’s back to the fiddle and saloon piano for the brisk waltzing Long Time Ago, a nostalgic reminiscence of a past love redolent of dancing across sawdust floor rustic bars, before their early signature tune, Way Down South, a jaunty, mandolin-plucked nostalgic number about the simple ebullience of youth, first romances (“when we got home, as we went inside, you said ‘Maybe you’re right for me, but maybe you’re not’”), making the best of the moment and, as in the repeated coda, your mother shouting “you’re gonna hurt yourself, come down from there”.
Growing up and not wanting things to change also informs the redemption-themed Letters, the only song not written by Furey. Penned by Butler, who also takes lead vocal, it’s distinctly different to everything else; the Celtic folk flavour is reined in for a musical box piano pattern overlaid with xylophone that gathers pace with the arrival of strings as, in true musician style, Butler sings “so I take on this road I love, will you still be here when I get home?”, building to the repeated ‘I promise you I‘ll never give up” climax.
A full head of rollicking steam follows with Sad Day (“So I’ll try and live this well, the best way that I know how, but if I mess up along this way, then I’ll promise you I’ll reconsider”), the album’s shortest track, but also one of its most energetic (if lyrically grim (“ heard a young man died doing good, as he lay there in his blood …I can’t imagine what he felt. Did he want to be someone else when he lay there all alone?”), and, once more, reminiscent of the young Van.
However, the musical mood’s quickly brought to heel with Remember When, pulsing keyboard note, stabbing fiddle and chugging train rhythm underpinning the song’s darker clouds (“I know you didn’t ask for this, it’s just the way it is for now”) as, again atypical of the surrounding tracks, it moves to a haunting vocal countermelodies passage with Furey emotionally intoning “remember when we were young, you were so kind, oh mother of mine”.
Finally, the album closes with Drunken Head/ The Little Battle, a moodily brittle, self-accusatory break-up number the piano and strings fuelled melody swirling around Furey as he resignedly sings “maybe things could get better and sweeter with age, but maybe not, in our case”, concluding that, if he tried to untangle his drunken head, “I’d probably just break your heart”, before the track ebbs away into distortion feedback and a spectral electronic last breath howl.
Although they’ve supported Midlake in the US and recently played their UK debut dates, for the most they’ve been focused on building a name for themselves on native soil where they were featured on a Jameson whiskey campaign and can count Irish President Michael Higgins among their biggest fans. With the release of the album, they may well find their backyard takes on global proportions.
Review by: Mike Davies
Released on Pixie Pace Records from September 8th
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Photo Credit: Kathrin Baumbach