Monday, October 19, 2009

Review: Andy J. Gallagher, Helicopter Dolphin Submarine (Waga Waga Records)

A lot of people incorrectly think that rock and punk rock are about mindless bluster or aggressive noise. However, the best rock, like the best music in general, often has an emotional subtext simmering crucible-like just beneath the surface. This tension between the artist's passions and the music that can barely contain them serves to bring an added depth and urgency to the apparent chaos.

If you're wondering what the hell I'm talking about, check out Andy J. Gallagher's latest, "Helicopter Dolphin Submarine." On this, his full-length solo debut, Gallagher (formerly of The Shopkeeper Appeared) harnesses volatile emotions like anger, regret and longing to fuel and add moments of sublime beauty to 12 seriously cracking rock/mod-punk tunes. More specifically, Gallagher seems to be ruminating over a recent breakup, and this palpable sense of loss informs the vast majority of the album, taking his songs to an even higher level.

Roman Jugg (formerly of the Damned) is seated in the producer's chair for HDS, and while the tunes are all Gallagher's, I assume Jugg is at least partially responsible for the feeling of "windswept anarchy" that propels much of the album forward. That feeling is so pronounced, in fact, that it often threatens to consume the listener whole. Of course, many of Jugg's rollicking proclivities were hinted at during his tenure with the Damned, but 80's production values presumably held him in check. Here, he's finally let "off the chain" and it's quite the revelation.

Gallagher and Jugg work well together: Nifty tracks like "Something Else", "Faster and Faster", and "Another Craze" gallop along at a breakneck pace with reverb-drenched guitars and riffs that oscillate like a demented ambulance siren. The arrangements are tight and punchy, and most of the songs are super-short, leaving the listener feeling like he just got out of the rumble seat: breathless and ready for more.

Gallagher's singing has that boozy, loose quality that’s somewhere between pugnacious swagger and wounded heartbreak. To put it another way, listening to this disc feels like the aural equivalent of a bloke having a row with his girlfriend, then blowing off steam by throwing on his leather jacket, riding down to the pub at 100 mph, and getting into a friendly punchup with his mates. Later, he buys them all a round while he gets misty and tells them a thing or two about life.

If the pub metaphor isn't cutting it for you, here's a partial list of the influences that crop up on HDS: The Buzzcocks, David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, The Kinks, The Ramones, The Beatles, Bauhaus, The Clash and The Damned. Gallagher draws upon these artists (and many more) to create a unique sound that feels like the best parts of classic rock, 70's glam rock, britpop and punk distilled down to their rawest, most potent elements.

That said, the finest moments on HDS are probably the more subdued ones. Don't get me wrong, the faster songs are absolutely smashing, but things REALLY kick into high-gear (ironically) when Gallagher slows things down for tracks like "The Brightest Star" and "Helicopter, Dolphin, Submarine." On the prayer-like "Star", Gallagher, over music reminiscent of Rod Stewart's early-70's/acoustic phase, looks to the night sky and dreams of an ex-lover. It's definitely one of the album's highlights, and the solemnity of the track is made even more poignant by its stark contrast with the off-the-rails rock that comes before it.

Even better than "Star", though, is the title track, which mines similar lyrical territory. "Helicopter, Dolphin, Submarine" starts off with a languid intro that channels the Manic Street Preachers at their most dreamy, then moves into an aching verse melody with some lovely falsetto notes. Finally, the chorus hits and electric guitars flood the scene as Gallagher sings accusingly, "You don't need me, and you probably never did."

Cleverly, the percussion evokes memories of the Beach Boys, which matches the "west coast" imagery perfectly. Overall, the song has a rather spacious, cinematic feel; you can almost see the sun setting on the Pacific coast along with the protagonist's love affair.

Above all else, I need to point out that this album is extremely hooky; Gallagher is an excellent songwriter with a keen sense of melody. As a result, you'll probably be crooning these tunes for days on end. Of course, this does have potential drawbacks; it's bad enough to be walking around singing "Weirdo, weirdo," at the top of your lungs ("Another Craze"), but you're really taking your life into your own hands if you get "Something Else" stuck in your noggin. That's because the catchiest lyric from this ditty is, "Go f*ck yourself," which I, unfortunately, have been singing on the crowded streets of New York for five days straight. It's amazing I haven't been killed yet.

However, listening to an album as good as "Helicopter, Dolphin, Submarine" makes me think it might be worth the risk.

**** (four out of five stars)

Notable Tracks: "Helicopter, Dolphin, Submarine"; "Brightest Star"; "Something Else"; "Another Craze"; "The Rocks"

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