Album review: Fontaines DC – Dogrel

Fontaines DC
(Partisan Records)

The hype is certainly real with Fontaines DC. It’s difficult to think of another recent Irish band (or a British band for that matter) whose stock has soared concurrently in the US and the UK as it has with the Dublin five-piece.  Since signing with New York’s Partisan Records last year, Fontaines have shot to prominence at a pace almost as blistering as their 11-track debut. It’s easy to forget that up until a few weeks ago, the band had released only one single outside of Ireland.

In the interim there have been five-star reviews and ringing endorsements from US critics as esteemed as Rolling Stone’s David Fricke. Their current world tour will see them play venues in the US as big as their UK counterparts. This is a band who, if they haven’t yet made it, are well on their way to establishing that corner stone of longevity – the ability to tour internationally and build a fanbase that will sustain them through less media-friendly times.

Dogrel will ensure that they hold that media light for a while yet. It’s the kind of record that will inspire teenagers to pick up guitars. Brimming with attitude, Grian Chatten’s strident and heavily accented vocal will sound fresh and vital to international ears. Dogrel also has enough signposts to serve as an entry point to past masters in much the way that Blur and Oasis acted for a generation.

Those of us longer in the tooth – and familiar with great Irish acts ignored – will tune into Dogrel with different ears. The record’s touch points are the capital’s streets and as such bring to mind more than half a dozen records by artists such as Damien Dempsey, Jubilee Allstars, Barry McCormack and Paul Awlright. All have cut as close to the city’s heart without garnering the same attention. It’s not that Dogrel doesn’t succeed in its key objective to sound authentically native. In fact, this is a record that more often than not captures what Dublin feels, which sometimes isn’t truly Dublin at all. It’s just that it isn’t so original as to warrant lofty praise.

Comparisons have also been drawn with fellow Dublin bands Girl Band and Whipping Boy, but Girl Band remain much more strikingly original, while Whipping Boy are yet a level above with Ferghal McKee’s lyrics much more acerbic and biting than anything here.

The makeup of Fontaines DC’s sound is closer to London or Manchester than it is Dublin. Television Screen borrows vocal melodies from The Smiths. Throughout there are echoes of Joy Divison’s Peter Hook in the propelling bass that sits other each track. Roy’s Tune is reminiscent of Britpop also-rans Northern Uproar, while Big hurtles out of the speakers with the same kind of defiant self-confidence of Oasis’ Rock n’ Roll Star. Elsewhere, Boys in The Better Land and Liberty Belle draw on the same frenzied energy and palette of urbane, literary lyrics as The Libertines.

Album closer Dublin City Sky bares the most obvious influences. It’s the track that brings to mind that Fontaines DC are a band formed out of BIMM, the fee-paying ‘rock college’ in The Liberties. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but Dublin City Sky sounds like it was written as part of a workshop to create a Pogues’ song. With its references to ‘the boys’, ‘some auld bar in China town’, ‘making my baby cry’ and ‘the foggy dew’, it’s so paint-by-numbers Pogues it’s as if Chatten tore up lyrics from Shane MacGowan’s The Song with No Name, A Rainy Night In Soho, The Broad Majestic Shannon and The Auld Main Drag and glued them back together.

The Fontaines frontman has been hailed as something of a Dublin poet. To give him his due he has some killer lines. Seeing him spit out the opening of Chequeless Reckless in a live setting – “A sell-out is someone who becomes a hypocrite in the name of money/ An idiot is someone who lets their education do all of their thinking/ A phony is someone who demands respect for the principles they effect/ A dilettante is someone who can’t tell the difference between fashion and style” – is to want to be a part of Fontaines DC’s gang. Liberty Belle, the band’s debut single, is another lyrical standout, full of hazy images of unpredictable Dublin 8.

But dig deeper and Chatten doesn’t have a whole lot to say. Lyrics such as “Sister, sister, how I missed ya, missed ya/ Let’s go wrist to wrist and take the skin off of my blister/ If you’re a rockstar, pornstar, superstar, doesn’t matter what you are/ Get yourself a good car, get outta here” put Chatten closest to Noel Gallagher. He’s certainly not on a par with the droll wit of Morrissey or the keen eye for generational detail of Alex Turner.

But perhaps that is all to miss the point. Rock ‘n’ roll is an attitude, as Lester Bangs famously said, and attitude is something that Chatten and Fontaines DC have in abundance. Chatten sings with such steadfast belief that he gets away with venting lines that, when tied together, appear to hold little meaning. Roys Tune may be one of the album’s weaker tracks but still you can’t help but get caught up in it Chatten’s half-sneered “I hate the way they used her” line.

And that’s where Dogrel seals itself as one of the more memorable Irish debut albums of recent memory. Despite its lack of originality, it is still a fun, frenzied collection peppered with real moments. There are weak songs here, but nothing so dull as to turn you off. Not quite the brilliant rock n’roll record some would lead you to believe, but still enough to get excited about what might come next.

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