As the wizards discussed on podcast number 20, this month they undertook an intra-wizard 1p Album Club swap.

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Here are the details of my swap with Kicker.

Cathal Coughlan – The Sky’s Awful Blue

Bought by Kicker for Chorizo

Bought because…

Cork legend, Cathal Coughlan, is one of Ireland’s great alternative heroes. Since the 80s, he has consistently been making interesting and challenging records very much like an anti-Bono. After the pop sounds of Microdisney and the sonic attack of Fatima Mansions, he has latterly been releasing sporadic solo albums, mostly with a fairly minimal backing, but always remaining seemingly unable or, perhaps, unwilling to keep his record company happy with a commercially successful sound.

tell us another one, go on, go on, go on...

tell us another one, go on, go on, go on…

I bought this record, Coughlan’s third solo album, for Chorizo as much because in my mind the artist is the flipside* to one of his favourites, the Manic Street Preachers, as because I thought he would enjoy it.

[*The Fatima Mansions wonderful mangling of the dread Bryan Adams’ ‘Everything I Do’ being the b-side to the Manic’s hit cover of ‘Suicide Is Painless’.]

Of all Coughlan’s solo records (there have been 5 to date released under his own name) The Sky’s Awful Blue is the one I know best. I remember buying it in the tiny record shop in Manchester airport when flying out to St Petersburg (Russia not Florida) in January 2003 and the beyond bleak album cover seemed appropriate as I was leaving my family to return to a seemingly black and white world and temperatures of down to minus 30 degrees Centigrade. I loved the album title too with its mixed message of the word ‘awful’. Did it mean terrible or just ‘very’ (as in the Irish vernacular)?

The lyrics are just outstanding and I know Chorizo will appreciate lines like “Old Kentish men in stetson hats avenge their deaths in tiny acts” and “Say good bye to beauty, ruin, rainbows, springtime, credit, blackmail, open kisses, drugs and sorrow, despair, wonder, ivy-covered frozen graveyards and the slowly-waning sun.” Fabulous, miserable stuff. I also love the namecheck for Oum Kalthoum. You don’t get very many of them to the pound.

another happy-clappy cover there, Cathal

another happy-clappy cover there, Cathal

I also think the instrumentation will be right up Chorizo’s street with cellos and strange percussion littered amongst an occasionally jazzy feel. Coughlan is often compared to both Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave as a lyricist and singer (both artists I know are on Garbanzo’s list of favourites – well, certainly the latter is), but to me he is most reminiscent of a favourite of mine, Scott Walker. Like Walker’s most recent output, The Sky’s Awful Blue is never easy listening, but is always compelling and ultimately highly satisfying.

I was really surprised that this album was available for only 1p so jumped at it. I hope Chorizo enjoys it as much as I still do more than 10 years after first hearing it.

The verdict

Never heard any Cathal Coughlan solo stuff although I already owned a few Fatima Mansions CD / vinyl singles, “1000%”, “Evil Man”, “Blues for Ceacescu” and my favourite one “You’re a Rose” (which I have on numbered 12″, calm down Kicker!) All of those are quite heavy rock songs which is probably the thing that stopped me from getting more into the band. One of the reasons I like “You’re a Rose” is because it sounds quite a bit like The The, a band who are generally disliked by critics (and I suspect by the other 2 wizards).

I also had a Fatima Mansions album called Valhalla Avenue on tape, but I never listened to it much. I have a CD of theirs called Bertie’s Brochures which isn’t that good, despite a great cover of Richard Thompson’s “The Great Valerio” and a terrible cover of R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People.” (I think they were taking the piss with that one)

This album, and in particular the vocals, reminded me of Scott Walker and Leonard Cohen, as Kicker mentioned, but most of all Julian Cope. There’s also a distinct sulphuric whiff of “Tender Prey / Henry’s Dream” era Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, possibly because of the use of archaic language (e.g. “scriveners” “reivers” “Sunday suits”) which makes it difficult to tell exactly when these songs are set.

“The Influence: Leonard Cohen consoles Nick Cave” by Ben Smith

Another song, the sinister “You Turned Me” starts off sounding like theme from a tense murder mystery. But then chorus comes in and it becomes something altogether sweeter. Coughlan’s vocals really get going towards the end of the song where he’s singing in a much higher voice. (Hints of another Wizards favourite Kevin Rowland?) I would’ve liked to have heard more singing like that on the album to liven it up a bit and give the sound a bit more variety.

Some other songs reminded me of the lyrical mastermind and noted pervert Momus. One of my favourite songs “Amused as Hell”, one of the few up tempo songs on the album, has definite echoes of 1980s L.Cohen “I’m Your Man” here. Not quite sure what the lyrics are about, some kind of critique of the advertising or fashion world I think. Lyrical highlights include “tonight there is a party for a perfume called Despair” and “there’s been a revolution in women’s underwear”

don't you know, we're talkin bout a revolution

don’t you know, we’re talkin bout a revolution

There are echoes of another of my musical heroes, Elvis Costello, as well, partly in the vocals, definitely in the songwriting and lyrics like the ones above, but mostly in the arrangements. Many of these songs would fit in very snugly on 90s albums like “Painted from Memory” & “All this Useless Beauty.”

The penultimate track is the busy, wordy “Drunken Hangman” (more archaic imagery there) and it starts off with a repeated piano figure and a cyclical vocal melody that drags you in and makes you feel trapped! The song really comes to life in the chorus and it ends with some marvellously discordant and very badly played thrashing about on electric guitar by CC himself (credited on the sleeve as “mistreated guitar”). This would’ve made a brilliant album closer, especially because the last track’s not all that good.

But talking of sleeve credits, the other musicians deserve a big mention. Coughlan definitely hasn’t gone down the guitar/bass/drums route here and it’s great to hear a wide range of instruments. All manner of woodwind, string & percussion instruments turn up here and there adding hugely to my enjoyment of the music and changing my verdict on the album from “kind of alright, but a little bit boring” to “actually really good”

Danny Manners on bass

Danny Manners on bass

One of the stars of the show is the bassman who it says here is called Danny Manners. Playing a double bass, it adds a bit of swing and a bit of mystery to proceedings as well as harking back to Danny Thompson’s wonderful playing on albums by Richard Thompson, David Sylvian, Billy Bragg, Talk Talk and especially Nick Drake.

Standout Track:

Hopefully you’ll be able to hear many of these things I’ve mentioned on my favourite track on the album, which is called “Goodbye Sadness”. Julian Cope-a-like vocals! Great double bass! It certainly starts off like a late 90s Costello ballad and it’s even got a little bit of a Kevin Rowland-ism in there.  (Listen out for it on the word “digital” when he sings “computer graphics and digital bluff”.)

Big thanks to my fellow wizard Kicker for sending me this.

One of Kicker’s many obsessions is grammar and all that people talking proper stuff like what that Lynne Truss bird is well into and that. He must of not never noticed the lyric here that goes “he spoke of the need for more layoffs as golf pals suggested he do.” Is that right or should it be “did”? And what about that question mark in that last sentence, should that have gone inside the speech marks? 

Whatever. It’s well worth 1p + P&P of anyone’s money so buy it here.



About kickerofelves1

Wizard-in-Chief for Trust The Wizards music podcast and blog. Guided By Voices fanatic.

4 responses »

  1. Picking up on Chorizo’s questions relating to grammar and punctuation, he will be pleased to learn that Cathal’s line is perfectly acceptable grammatically.

    “he spoke of the need for more layoffs as golf pals suggested he do”

    – the verb form in the second clause here (do) is in the Present Simple tense suggesting an active state of habitual action i.e. he generally now speaks of the need for more layoffs. If this were in the Past Simple (did), the implication would be that he only spoke about the layoffs as suggested once and that this was in the past.

    As for the question of where to put the question mark, this depends on what the interrogative is referring to.

    should it be “did”?

    The speech marks here are used to indicate that the word ‘did’ is being quoted. The question is Chorizo’s own and he has therefore punctuated appropriately. If the quote referred to “did?”, his question would be as below:

    should it be “did?”?

    So, there you are. In any case, I’m very pleased you liked the album.

  2. Thanks for the information. So do I get a gold star (for robot boy).

  3. […] Chorizo’s review of Cathal Coughlan’s – The Sky’s Awful Blue […]

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