Fine, non-Irish Pogues,
This review is from: Hell's Ditch (Remastered / Expanded) (Audio CD)While most Pogues fans with a taste for things Irish roundly condemn Hell's Ditch it is a good record. Certainly it is far superior to Peace and Love. When Peace and Love was released MacGowan told anyone who would listen that the band had abandoned its Irish roots. "They were trying to divorce themselves from the Irish thing," he complained. With Hell's Ditch the divorce was finalized and MacGowan had lost custody of the leprechauns. Panning a record because it has no Irish flavor, however, is shortsighted at best. By that standard, Rubber Soul and Highway 61 are dismal. If Hell's Ditch had been released by another band and therefore not compared to the Pogues' first three LPs, more listeners would recognize it for the wonderful rock album it is. MacGowan's voice is ragged, but it drips with attitude and oozes anger. Perhaps producer Joe Strummer's punk sensibilities made the difference. Perhaps the fact that Finer and MacGowan collaborated more than they had done on Peace and Love made the difference. Whatever the reason, it's a damn fine post-Irish Pogues LP. MacGowan co-wrote nine of the album's thirteen songs. To be sure, the record continued down the fusion path. "Maidrin Rua," a traditional instrumental, is the only straight up Irish number on the disc. Most of the album, despite typical Pogues' acoustic instrumentation, rocks hard. Only three cuts use an electric guitar. While there are some other instruments that the band didn't normally use in the past, they're not those typically found in a rock band. For instance, Finer played a hurdy-gurdy he built himself, and Fearnley used a sitar on one track. Under Joe Strummer's production, however, the overall sound is not what you'd expect from mandolins, mandolas, citterns, auto harps, accordions, concertinas, tin whistles, banjos and the like.
"Sunny Side of the Street," "The Ghost of a Smile," and "Rain Street" rock the best. None of the three reach the lyrical heights MacGowan had attained in the past, but two of the tracks boast lines any rock and roller would be proud to have penned. "Sunny Side of the Street" was co-written with Jem Finer. Lyrically, his contribution was the title, which was used in the refrain. The best of what Shane contributed came in the opening verse: "Seen the carnival at Rome. Had the women, had the booze. All I can remember now is little kids without no shoes." "Rain Street" is one of the album's strongest tracks. Its focus on a particular street brings to mind Dylan's "Desolation Row." The depiction of MacGowan's street is far more stripped down than Dylan's classic, but no less compelling. Crammed with Christian imagery, it is peopled with priests in a bar (one with a venereal disease), St. Anthony, Judas, and Jesus himself. For good measure a singing drunk and a young girl hocking her wedding ring are thrown into the mix. My favorite verse is the second: "Down the alley the ice wagon flew, picked up a stiff that was turning blue. The local kids were sniffing glue. Not much else for a kid to do on Rain Street."
The musical fusion MacGowan lamented is blatant in three of his own songs: "Lorca's Novena," "Hell's Ditch," and "Five Green Queens and Jean" (the last two co-written with Finer). "Lorca's Novena" is about the execution of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a Spanish folk hero killed by pro-Franco forces during the Spanish Civil War. The music is unusual, even by Pogues' standards. It builds gradually and dramatically with a distinctive Spanish feel. The album's title cut, "Hell's Ditch" centers on Jean Genet, a homosexual French writer who spent a great deal of his life in prison, some of it in Spain. Musically, the track feels Spanish and Mideastern at the same time, acknowledging, as so much Spanish music does, Muslim influences dating back to the middle ages. "Five Green Queens and Jean" is the best of these three cuts. Lyrically sparse, the song defies interpretation. MacGowan has said the five green queens refer to a dice game where one surface of each die depicts a queen colored green. MacGowan intended the track to be recorded with just an acoustic guitar but was overruled. The final arrangement was probably intended to sound Spanish as well, but to an American ear it brings Mexico to mind. Terry Woods' mandolin playing is perfect, and James Fearnley's accordion work would make Flaco Jimenez proud.
"Sayonara," "House of Gods," and "Summer in Siam" have been called MacGowan's Thailand trilogy. All three are set in the Far-eastern nation where Shane has so often retreated for R & R. As one would expect, there's little of the Dubliners' influence evident on these cuts. The songs are loaded with references to Thailand's beaches, whiskey, beer, and women. All three work quite nicely, especially "Summer in Siam." Lyrically the song is spare, more so than anything else MacGowan has written. Apart from repetition, there are just six lines and 27 words. It is none the less beautiful. MacGowan calls it a musical haiku. The music, complete with a kalimba, harp, and congas, is slow, soft, and elegant.
Hell's Ditch may not sound like a Pogues' album, but it sounds very good. Rake at the Gates of Hell: Shane Macgowan in Context