On Julie Feeney’s “Clocks” as Antidote to Bad Pop

by Brendan Strong

I first heard of Julie Feeney on one of my brief sojourns into pop radio. These are infrequent experiences, usually in the car, coloured by my clumsily jabbing at the centre panel until something else comes on.

I have long wearied of sexual antics and fantasies of 40 year old men played out by young women, or “girl power” heroines who can have all they want and then sell the T-shirt to prove it (then drink a pint of bluish purple aniseed and mint vodka, which luckily spills all down the front of said T-shirt, thus increasing page impressions (among other impressions), and T-shirt sales). But one day, after the cholic heave of our old motor, there came this melodic, harmonic mystery:

You’re impossibly beautiful
Is that ‘cos I waited? Is that ‘cos I’m looking?
Or is it just ‘cos you are?

What is this? I wondered. It didn’t sound like the market reports, or the drab announcements of another political mishap or human tragedy from some hitherto unwell-known spot in the country. Wait – this isn’t Misery Ireland at all. This is… what is this? Today, I still don’t know what station the radio was tuned to, but it was quite a moment to me. The lyrics, the melody, the purity of voice. It quickly became my song for my daughters. I listened to the end of the song.

Then, somebody said something about buying something, and then there was the usual sound of “boompf boompf shakey my ass, baby I’m a baby for you yeah slurp boompf” in a voice that trilled and warbled but covered little of a normal octave of 8 notes. In my reverie of the song I’d just heard, I turned the radio back to the aural misery that is current affairs in Ireland.

Some time later, there was that song again. This time I got the name (Julie Feeney) and later that week, I got the album (Pages). I brought the girls with me (a ritual I like when getting some new music I want them to grow up listening to) and we listened to it in the car on the way home, then at home. We all loved it. It was playful, clever, melodic, harmonious, not at all too serious about itself. It packed a bit of a punch, not being a simple Boom Tinkle or Dingle Dung or Bear Bear Bungle Bear album, which I had grown to understand as some musical Plato’s forms for pop songs in the modern age. Furthermore, the voice was singing in an Irish accent. Unashamedly. As if the Irish could have a musical legacy in a modern age! Well, such reckless abandon of the well established templates of success made me a firm fan.

And so, to last week, when Julie Feeney released her antidote to all that is wrong with modern pop. A bold claim, especially from one who doesn’t listen to modern pop. But I am aware of enough stereotypes to continue with my blatantly ignorant damning of a billion dollar business in order to praise something of true artistic merit.

The First symptom cured: Bloat

Modern pop suffers terribly from bloat. I use this term because it is kind of ugly, and I think sounds like a neighbour of fart and gloat (and goat!). It’s this thing where they chuck money and money and money at an artist until they sound good. Or look good enough not to listen to. And if they look good enough to not listen to, you can get one of these talented young producers in and some talented musicians in to distract you from them.

Clocks was crowd-funded by Julie. To my eternal shame, I wasn’t in a position to help during the fundraising period (for my wife and I have been doing a spot of redundancy-and-new-job while raising 2 kids and paying a mortgage during this recession). However, I remember it at the time, and loved the idea of it. Other musicians have praised the approach, pointing out that it lets musicians make the music they want to (and their fans want to hear). Without the excess, Clocks revels in simple instrumentation (played with marvellous dexterity), and gets to the point very quickly: the music has evidently been crafted, carefully and deliberately. Nothing is where it shouldn’t be and everything is where it should be.

The Second symptom cured: RSI (Repetitive Sounds Irritation)

There is a very definite and obvious formula to much of modern pop music, from the instruments, chords, sounds and lyrics used. The elephant in the room generally goes into the chorus, where people sing along with reckless abandon, everything else is stirred into the sauce with the care with which this cliché has been constructed. The sudden tempo changes, dramatic chord changes, have all fallen to cliché as one hears the cadence almost immediately. A friend once likened it to a McDonald’s. Wherever you go in the world, McDonald’s will taste the same. Wherever you go in the West, you can hear pop and know immediately what the song is about, how long it will last and when you need to go “Ahhnd SheeWeeeIeeee Knowww Don’t knoooooow” and so forth, as you try to keep up with lyrics you’ve never heard, but feel like you have.

Clocks has a much more subtle cadence, with melodies that are strange to hear, sometimes simply different from the fairly pedestrian strains of pop (Dear John), sometimes a little whimsical (Every Inch a Woman), sometimes just better than people working in pop have managed (Worry). Julie actually sings with an Irish accent, but not like an Irish pub (lest someone attack me with my own poor McD’s metaphor). More that musical accent you used to complain about Americans complimenting us with; an expressive, perhaps dramatic accent at times, as vowels and consonants lose their twang and take on a grand softness that dampens the harsher edges.

The Third symptom cured: Adolescent “Love” and “Holding” and “Closeness” and “Being a Part of You” etc.

Frankly, modern pop could win any number of bad sex awards if it were written down and sent to someone to judge. While I appreciate the post-modern expressiveness, which is about as embarrassing to listen to as sex is for an adolescent to consider happening outside their own head, I fear they are taking it too far. Songs of love and betrayal are often hollow, sounding like something a 40 year old is trying to explain to their young nephew in the smoking are of a pub at a wedding. There is a horrific amount of misogyny and sexism, and women are often handy metaphors, which makes one wonder if the writers are really looking for something much more handy altogether.

In Clocks, the songs are a series of stories. Some positively Chekhovian in their simple honesty, and (gasp) real human emotions are expressed. Cold Water along could teach a generation of songwriters about the difficulties of relationships, that are difficult because there are 2 humans involved, not a man (or a woman) and a cardboard cutout stereotype to which the song is “sung”. Julia, as another example, is a song of love an loss that is so simple and delicate, I think only a handful of people could manage to have written it (“The echoes of her laughter ringing ripples in my bosom/ I hear echoes in the ripples of my crying, Oh My Julia”).

In fact, my initial response to this whole thing was not that it was an album, but an experience that I would recommend to anyone.

The Fourth symptom cured: Absolute individuality

In terms of modern pop, it’s all about the stars. I wish to write no more about it.

This is not so much about Clocks the album, but going to see Julie Feeney live in Newbridge last weekend. While I find the Riverbank a difficult venue (seats are very close together, and as you can imagine from this post, I am a large, grumpy man who will complain to anyone who will listen), I loved every moment. The show was part of a 10 night tour, which found Julie Feeney singing in a different town with a local school choir. She sang with the well prepared, well talented and frankly well behaved young women of the Holy Family choir. They did themselves, Julie Feeney and their school proud.
To see Julie Feeney live is quite an experience, as she really brings songs to life – there is a physicality to her performance reminiscent of Tom Waits, where it seems the music inhabits the singer, and is frankly making a break for it, through characters and movements and words. During the show, the choir sang Impossibly Beautiful, which I imagine to be Julie Feeney’s best known song. That was a brave and generous move, I felt. Certainly if I had created anything like that, I would have difficulty handing it over to someone else. They also sang Stay (from Pages), which was beautiful.
Then she made us sing. Not in a middle-of-the chorus, come on you drunk fools, wavy arms and faux excitement manner. No, no. First, we had to learn the parts. She spent a minute or two teaching us. Then, we all sang Dear John (from Clocks). I think as an audience, we may have let her down a bit, but as a performer, it was a remarkable act of trust and attempt to bring us all there in the community of a song (and a great song, with the line “What a fantastic day!”, which just isn’t said enough in pop music).

Anyway, I have gone on too long and here I shall leave it. I don’t blame you if you’ve just skipped to here to read the conclusion. My conclusion is: buy the album. It charms its way into you, and wriggles around under your skin, giving you that giddy excitement of listening to something truly unique.

Edit: You can buy the album from iTunes here or, go to your local record shop and see can they get it for you.