I aim to review 100 albums I've not heard before in a year. So roughly two a week. Not too tricky then. But occasionally I have to go out and look for the cat. And I have asthma. We'll see how it goes.
The mop-topped Irish vagabond Fionn Regan is back and there is quite a tale to be told in the history behind this album. Regan's debut, The End of History, came out on Bella Union in 2006, was critically heralded all over the place and nominated for a Mercury. He then signed to Lost Highway Records in America and recorded an album with Ethan Johns, famous for producing Ryan Adams amongst other people, but that album was rejected by the label. Regan flew back to Ireland and quickly recorded the rockier, electric-Dylanesque Shadow Of An Empire, an album which sounded the polar opposite of his delicate debut. This album whilst again critically well received, didn't seem to connect with his fans, and although I don't have the sales figures in front of me, I suspect it didn't perform half as well as his debut. Which, only sixteen months later, brings us to his third album, 100 Acres of Sycamore, and a return to the intimate sound and fingerpicked acoustic guitars of his first album. Now there are two ways of looking at this: the cynical view is that Regan realised his last album turned a lot of fans off so he intentionally returned to the sounds that made his debut popular, the more positive take is that he is a man who records what he wants when he wants, and this album reflects where he is at the moment. And regardless of all that, is it actually any good? And that's the tricky thing - it is, but it also manages to disappoint.
To get the criticism out of the way first - the album is very similarly paced throughout. Slow, acoustic song follows slow acoustic song, the tone varies very little. It doesn't have the playfulness of his debut, nor the energy or attitude of Shadow. And whilst on both previous albums there were stand out songs, songs that immediately lodged themselves in the songbank of your brain, nothing here leaps out, knocks you to the ground and shoves its tongue down your throat. Which is a bad thing, obviously.
But it's still an intriguing listen, and more often than not it is the lyrics which pull you in. Regan's always been a man in love with words and where many songwriters seem more interested in the music and throw any rhyming couplets on top of their chords (I'm looking at you Gallagher, both of you), Regan has always taken delight in the words. The album opens with the sinister lines:
We'll go knuckle to knuckle,
and buckle against buckle,
your nostrils will flair,
as you push out the air,
rise up, brother, rise up,
rise up from the trappings of flesh and the holdings of skin,
We'll steer car towards the reservoir,
and poison our senses as nightfall commences...
So where the music might occasionally be your usual finger-picked, string-drenched, songwriter stuff, you can usually guarantee that Regan will be dropping an interesting tale in there, giving something for your ears and brain to lose themselves in, but, on initial listens at least, the tunes themselves aren't ones which will lodge in your head. But I will keep listening to see if he ever quite fulfills the promise suggested on his debut album, and even when he's not quite getting there he's still more interesting than most other singer songwriters.
And to finish, just for fun, please let me let me quote from the Guardian review of the album:
'Regan's guitar a moonlit stream weaving through a forest of glimmering piano and velvety strings.'
They mean he fingerpicks his guitar over a piano and string backing...