On Songs from the Lough Swilly Delta

by Brendan Strong

Songs from the Lough Swilly Delta is a Fundit-funded album from Little John Nee and the Caledonia Highly Strung Orchestra (website here@littlejohnnee on Twitter; here on Facebook).  It was released in early December, with a small launch tour which went to Dublin and Galway (as I write this, a third date in Donegal (in February) and a fourth in Napoli (in April) are yet to be played).

Yes, Napoli. I know, who would have thought? That sense of things out of place penetrates through the whole thing.

The album is a collection of songs taken from various shows that Little John Nee has written and staged. You can read about the origins of some of the songs here on his website.  Songs of love, desire, despair, adventure and travel and Erwin Schrodinger standing in front of his fridge, hoping there’s a beer inside and afraid to open it in case he then has to walk to the shop.

The songs cover broad and deep themes, but with a quirky sense of humour and a very definite sense of place (various named towns and parts of Ireland, Scotland). The effect is mesmerising.   I don’t think there is a genre for this, although, I would take a punt at eccentric-punk-ballroom-pop-folk? In places, there are very definite musical forms followed, but this is perhaps to allow for the effect of straying away or undermining them. Peculiar is a good word for it: both in terms of “odd” and also in terms of “specific to itself”. The music, voices and lyrics work carefully with each other – so that the voice used will carry and add to the meaning of a lyric, and the music will carry it altogether.

The music is off-beat, even when you feel like you know what’s going to happen next, it doesn’t. Something else does instead. There’s a benefit here to the music being written for dramatic performance – they work a bit differently, enhancing the effects being developed, making them more interesting.  And the sounds themselves carrying the music get strange and/or spooky in many places. It’s not hard to listen to, the melodies all work well and keep you going. A couple of the instrument arrangements wouldn’t be astray in a Tom Waits album, others don’t seem to have a home, but have laid their heads together here.

Little John Nee’s voice is as eclectic as the music it sings along to. One moment he is singing gruff, from the bottom of his throat about punches and bruises, elsewhere, a falsetto meditates on a nightmarish vision of a “mingin’ kitchen” and the narrator starving (“There’s mices lickin’ dishes, like it’s delicious!”). Other places again, it’s excited, jumped-up heavily (Donegal-) accented rockabilly. You can’t place it any more than you can place the music.  Yet, you can identify a very definite accent (that Donegal twang), which is refreshing in a world of the Universal Atlantic Rock and Pop accent.

Then, the words. The lyrics are strange fictions telling (often tall) tales that ring true. I can imagine Gregor Samsa (having awoken from his uneasy dreams), managing to get out of his room, travelling Ireland and regaling us with songs of his adventures. The Donegal dialect is used throughout, and without apology (“minging”, “wane”, “dander” etc.) There is earthy truth and ethereal beauty, and no easy clichés.

All of these songs were revelations to me, and I could write all night about them, so I’ll instead pick 3 really stand out moments for me:

Lorain, a love song with a sinister edge:

“Lorrain danders on down

The Andersontown

Devastating as any petrol bomb”

The verses have sparse instrumentation, over which Little John Nee’s vocals strain. The chorus comes in heavy with more instruments and a stronger voice singing lyrics which I am frankly envious of:

“She made me brave as thunder

She hung from my neck like silver”

The effect is gorgeous and strikingly emotive – but again, taking its own route to achieve it.

Schrodinger Scat, which I just don’t know how to describe.

There’s a fifties rockabilly feel, with Little John Nee dueting with Orlaith Gilcrest, includes a direct quote from Schrodinger (so the inlay says on the lyrics sheet), and describes a moment of Schrodinger, standing at his fridge, wanting a beer but afraid to open the fridge should he find he has none and has to walk to the shop.  It’s a song about physics and hope in the face of an impartial and uncaring universe, which I think is the first one of those I’ve ever heard.

Punches and Bruises is an account of broken people in a broken relationship (which includes domestic violence – the “Punches and Bruises” of the title, gambling, and a child), told from the woman’s point of view.

Again, a duet between Little John Nee and Orlaith Gilcrest, this tragic song opens with a couple – she staring out a window, he staring into a fire. John Nee sings the opening verse and chorus, followed by Orlaith Gilcrest; both bring worn, tired voices; jaded from abuse (punches and bruises), poverty (“you spent the brew down the boozer”) and dread “I don’t care about the punches and bruises

I don’t care about the pain

I don’t care about the greyhounds and horses

I just care about the wane.”

The song ends with a plea to Virgin Mary to mind the babies and “hear my prayer” followed by a much darker “poison his beer”. It’s a force of nature.

None of these words will do justice to what Little John Nee and the Caledonian Highly Strung Orchestra have created here. All I can do is suggest you go and buy it (details on where you can buy it are here on his website). It may be taking a gamble (if you haven’t heard him before), but I think it a gamble well worth taking.