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Spotlight on: The Saw Doctors

CDs Reviewed:
The Cure by The Saw Doctors
Live in Galway by The Saw Doctors
Play it again, Sham! by The Saw Doctors

Saw Doctors, The Cure

This CD is the first studio album from Celtic folk-rockers the Saw Doctors since their 2001 release, Villains?, making it only their sixth in fifteen years. They have been busy in the meantime, releasing the singles/B-sides collection Play it again, Sham! in 2002 (my introduction to the band) and the concert CD and DVD of Live in Galway in 2004. In that time, there has been a good deal of band-member turnover, but founders, frontmen, and songwriters Davy Carton (lead vocals) and Leo Moran (guitars) still remain, with bassist/saxophonist Anthony Thistlethwaite and drummer Fran Breen (both of whom have played with The Waterboys; Thistlethwaite was a founder) rounding out the rest on The Cure. Keyboardist Derek Murray appears on a few songs but not in the band photos.

Four years is a long wait for new material. Even when I interviewed Moran prior to their concert at the Roxy in Boston in March of 2004, he didn't know when they would get around to making a new record. The plan was to "start recording in May and June and get an album ... out before the end of the year," but as things turned out, they didn't get into the studio until March of 2005, which goes right along with Moran's comment, "It always goes longer than you hope."

Just to get this out of the way immediately, the album does not cover any songs from the band led by Goth poster boy Robert Smith. As guitarist Leo Moran explained in an October, 2005, interview with the Galway Advertiser, "We called the album The Cure as music is supposed to make you feel better." But despite that positive outlook, this album has a much different feel. For the most part, songwriters Moran and Carton are more introspective this time around. "The record is all about hitting middle age," Carton told the Telegram and Gazette (Worcester, MA) this past May. "We're seeing how precious time is ... and we intentionally left out the lighter bits."

The song titles themselves offer a certain mood. You need only look at the listing to see that "Addicted," "If Only," "Vulnerable," and "I'll Say Goodnight" visit some less than celebratory themes. For sure, lyrics like "The darkest clouds were on to me / I'd taken to the bed both day and night" (from the opener "Out for a Smoke") are a far cry from "Oh, mighty, mighty Lord almighty / Off with the collar and off with the nightie" (from Sham's "Howya Julia"). And certainly that cover photo with the lads standing around in a field with a threatening sky overhead does a lot to get the point across.

But The Cure is not a big mope-fest. As people grow and mature so should their songwriting. The same band that embraced the "Where's the Party?" (another cut from Sham) attitude are now embracing concepts like fatherhood ("Your Guitar"), which in turn reminds them of the "Wisdom of Youth" in the form of a power ballad that contains some of the album's best guitar work. Plus, there are some numbers that really let loose and have fun, like "Last Summer in New York" and "Your Guitar," that will sit well with fans of the band's more popular anthems "Hay Wrap," "N17," and "I Useta Lover" -- especially with Thistlethwaite's joyous sax on the former. The dichotomy is that even a hard rocker like "Last Summer in New York" contains lyrics of regret.

There's also the expected ode to Ireland in "Stars over Cloughanover." It fits well in a canon that already contains the classics "Green and Red of Mayo" and "Clare Island." A couple of sad/nostalgic pieces in "Me Without You" and "Going Home" ("this Christmas") are enhanced by the addition of twangy guitar, musically giving a subliminal taste of the past.

If "Funny World" sounds different from the average Saw Doctors tune, it is because it was written by Davy Carton's former Blaze X bandmate, the late Paul Cunniffe. Lamenting time lost, the lyrics are some of the darkest on the album, but with a sense of hope. Violin, cello, and various synthesizers lend a Magical Mystery Tour-era feel to the song, something the straightforward Docs haven't really experimented with before. Fully produced, "Funny World" is definitely a highlight and goes a long way towards administering The Cure.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

Saw Doctors, Live in Galway (CD)
Saw Doctors, Live in Galway (DVD)

I've said it before and it's still true: the music of the Saw Doctors is like a dose of Prozac -- I listen to it and I get happy. All the benefits, none of the side effects, and it's cheaper than a prescription.

Even though it may be another year until the Saw Doctors release an album of new material, with compilations of the quality of Play It Again, Sham! and Live in Galway, I won't mind too much. The CD and DVD were compiled from two concerts performed at the Black Box in July, 2003, so the material on each is almost identical, the only difference being a slight change in running order and an additional song or two on the DVD.

But the main draw of these discs is that they are the first official live release of the Saw Doctors in concert -- something that fans have been calling for, touting the band live as better than their studio work, for years. They also serve as a sort of "best of" collection. All the fan favorites are covered, including their three Irish number one singles -- "N17" (the opener, full of hometown nostalgia), "I Useta Lover," and "Hay Wrap" (the two closers) -- in addition to their sole UK #1, "To Win Just Once."

All the songs here benefit from the live atmosphere, as they have been further honed since their first recording. The addition of drummer Jim Higgins infuses the tunes with extra power from the bottom up. Most of them are more kinetic, and "I Useta Lover" is definitely new and improved. "Hay Wrap" features a chorus of "I Wanna Be Sedated" by the Ramones (a notable influence on Davy Carton's previous band, Blaze X) that takes it to another level, while fitting in perfectly and assisting in the crescendo that leads to the end of a terrific concert, with the crowd still begging for "one more song" upon fadeout. But no concert is complete without a special guest, and this one has two. Accompanying the Saw Doctors on "Joyce Country Céilí Band" -- since the band itself is, as Moran states, "about as far removed from a proper céilí band as you will ever get" -- are Sean Smyth of Lúnasa and fellow Tuam residents RíRá.

Filmed with six cameras and a professional lighting crew, the kineticism of the band really shines through on the Live in Galway DVD, even on the slower songs. In addition to hearing the music, the viewer gets to watch the individual musicians playing their respective instruments (and in the case of lead guitarist Leo Moran, frequently aping the movements of his influences) and releasing their obvious excitement at being able to do this for a living (through the in-place jumping of "Hay Wrap," for example). This only serves to add to the experience, and would almost certainly be well worth the extra cost for fans. Plus, a CD doesn't allow you to see how cute the fiddler from RíRá is.

In addition to the crystal clear visuals of the concert, the Live in Galway DVD features an hour-long documentary called "A Different Kind of World" that takes the band back home to Tuam, Clare Island, and the surrounding pubs where they got their start. Chock full of interviews and intimate performances, it's informative, funny and gives a rare glimpse into the background workings of Ireland's greatest rock band. There's also a slideshow of 211 photos taken by Leo Moran from the tour (yes, I counted them).

I'm generally not a fan of filmed concerts, because there is always a sense that something is missing -- being there is an important part of the experience. The DVD is a more pristine affair, absent are the alcohol breath and sweat of one's fellow attendees that infuse a concert with intimacy. You can see the audience, but you're not in it, which, to me, leads to a staler experience. So, is watching the DVD a suitable substitute for actually seeing them live? Of course not. But for people who don't live near a frequent venue, or who wish to reminisce about a concert they did attend, Live in Galway -- in both its manifestations -- is a wonderful document.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Saw Doctors, Play it again, Sham!

The first thing I noticed about the Saw Doctors' Play it again, Sham! was that I couldn't listen to it and not instantly cheer up. It's a veritable party in a jewel case. The Saw Doctors are full of energy and their clever songwriting is absolutely irresistible. I just might have a new favorite album. It'll certainly accompany me on long road trips. It's just the kind of energetic music I need to keep me from dozing off at the wheel.

Play it again, Sham! is also a terrific introduction to the Saw Doctors. A compilation of songs from the various albums and singles stretching across their long and fruitful career, it is also a wonderful sampling of the fun spirit the Doctors put into their music and concerts.

The album opens with an inspiring song of friendship and love, "World of Good," then goes right into the greatest ode ever written to a 1980s girl group (admittedly a pretty limited competition), "I'd Love to Kiss the Bangles." Vocalist Davy Carton expounds on his preference of bussing the members of this band over others:

I wouldn't kiss AC/DC or Lemmy from Motörhead.
I wouldn't kiss Tom Petty, Tina Turner, or the Grateful Dead.
And I wouldn't kiss Mr. Tambourine Man no matter how he jingle-jangles.
But Jesus Christ Almighty! I'd love to kiss the Bangles!
Part of the fun of this song (and others) was deciphering the Irish slang, and trying not to blush when I found out what it means. But this is the song I continually find myself returning to because it is the most exuberant. It has no agenda other than to facilitate having a good time. After "Michael D. Rocking in the Dail," a tribute to a favored politician, we move on to "Bless Me Father," a song of confession without regret:
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned
She had big brown eyes, silky skin
Bless me, Father, I couldn't resist
Oh, Father, you have no idea what you've missed.
But the Saw Doctors aren't all happiness. "Joe Wall Broke My Heart" is one of two "broke my heart" songs, being about the singer's girl running off with a celebrity. What follows is "Me Heart is Livin' in the Sixties Still," a nostalgic revisit (with a Duane Eddy twang) to the halcyon days of that decade.
I was smokin' joints and poppin' pills
And now I'm feelin' ill
Oh me heart is livin in the sixties still
I took off me clothes in the Odeon
Just to watch the Woodstock film
Oh me heart is livin in the sixties still
Then are described different representative people and occurrences and the longing really comes out in the singer's voice. It's almost sad, complete with plaintive saxophone, but then the mood is lifted by the boisterous beginnings of "Howya Julia" with drums, grinding guitar, and forceful voices. The chorus describes more confession-worthy behavior, this time from the other side.
Oh, mighty, mighty Lord almighty
Off with the collar and off with the nightie
Jesus, Mary, and holy Saint Joseph
The beads are rattling now.
Now, I'm not even Catholic, but I know what that means. But that's just an example of the irreverence the pervades this album. It's part of what makes it so much fun. I not only am having fun, but feel like an accomplice in this "bad boy" behavior.

"Apples, Sweets or Chocolate" is an ode to concessions at a concert, "Crock of Gold" a tribute to advice on striving for excellence, and "Broke My Heart" (the other such song) is about how "there's more than just one way to break a young man's heart." The big game could have been won, if only a certain teammate had cooperated.

Will you open your eyes?
For Christ's sake pass me the ball!
Next up is "We're the Popsuckers"--attributed, Traveling Wilbury-style, to the songwriting team of Eddie Sucker/Buddy Sucker/Bill Sucker/Big Sucker/Ringo Sucker. Another trip down nostalgia lane, it comes complete with an introduction by "Casey Casey" on Memphis radio. Let's listen:
The year, 1980. The month, July. This is the hot summer single from...The Popsuckers!

Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Eddie Cochran.
We play them all day, we just can't get enough of them.
When the riff goes around, we never want it to stop
'Cause we're the Popsuckers, suckers for pop.
When I first heard the Kinks it really got me going.
Blondie's 'Sunday Girl' was really well worth knowing.
When Ronnie Spector asked me would I be her baby,
I said, "Be bop a lula and I don't mean maybe."
When the riff goes around, we never want it to stop,
'Cause we're the Popsuckers, suckers for pop.

After a couple of verses (accented with appropriate riffs of tribute), the drummer goes into a ripping solo with guitar strikes straight from "Wipeout" -- and is that a farfisa organ I hear in the background? "We're the Popsuckers" is another highlight on Play it again, Sham!--an album full of them. The influence of American rock and roll on the Saw Doctors is obvious and this song gives the band a chance to pay tribute to the greats.

Most artists would find it hard to follow such a treat, so the Saw Doctors don't even attempt it, simply choosing to continue on as if it didn't happen. It probably helps that "Small Ball" is a speedy rocker with lyrics I can understand--sort of. I know what the words are, I just don't know what they mean. So this throws me off in time to appreciate the poetic "Winter's Just a Dream."

And close your eyes and tell me if you think the feeling's real
Cause it's summer now and winter's just a dream.
It seems a departure for the band to delve so deep into a love song with no irony, but at the same time it's perfect. Even the keyboard underlay (that would fit comfortably on any Cure album) only enhances the ethereal feel.

Okay, my heart rate's been down for four minutes so it's time to kick it back up with "She Says," a steady-beat-and-twanger that's shorter than two minutes and has a doo-wop chorus of "shut up, shut up." It is followed by another surprise--"Small Bit of Love," with, under its spirited exterior hides true emotion as it tells of people with hard lives being relieved by (or, sadly, lacking) that "small bit of love" that "makes it all worthwhile." I want to dance and cry at the same time. That's a hard mix to bring off successfully and they make it look easy.

But back to the frivolity. Do you wanna come "Bushwhackin'?" Or would you like to listen to a "Sound Sham" with a grinding guitar, a steel drum chorus, and a syncopated backbeat that's great with headphones? Of course, you can also drop by the "School of Beauty" where you can hear the story of how "she was a college friend of mine," they "swapped essential oils," and were "moisturizing in our prime." (I'm always impressed by inventive euphemisms.)

We're winding down now, are you ready? Spend a few moments with the "Letter from Louise," a song that tries just a bit too hard to be sincere, and you can then ask "Where's the Party?" and you'll be all set to start again from the beginning, because the party's right here and it's called Play it again, Sham!

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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