In the title track to Shilelagh Law's latest release, '1 and 9,' as the song heads towards its emphatic ending, the lyric states: 'It's a world of troubles, I've sure had some/ I don't know where I'm going but I know where I'm from/ I'm from New York Town, the very best part/ With the guts and the grit and the love and the heart.' They certainly make no bones about their love of New York and their hometown neighborhoods—this is always made abundantly clear on every S.L. release. It is the previous line, the one about not knowing where they are going, that colors this latest album most thoroughly. Shilelagh Law (with Terence Brennan on percussion, Steve Gardner on bass, Denis McCarthy on fiddle and tin whistles, Kevin McCarthy on accordion and Richard Popovic on guitar and lead vocal) heads into unchartered territory all throughout '1 and 9,' and it is a thoroughly rewarding journey.
One look at the track list and the focus on original songs over traditional ones is quickly evident. Besides a blazing fast 'Hills of Connemara,' a nicely re-imagined version of 'The Parting Glass' and the groovingest rendition of 'The Lakes of Pontchartrain' you will ever lay your ears on, there are no other standards to be found. Instead, the band focuses on their considerable songwriting skills and musical chops to carry the album, and in doing so redefines their trademark sound. Gentle numbers like Popovic's 'Sand' and 'Simple as That' take them far outside the realm of traditional Irish music and lands them squarely in a Pop/Folk landscape, one which they seem quite comfortable in. The style swings to Celtic folk rock in 'Pubs, Pints, Open Doors,' Popovic's chronicle of the band's journey through Ireland and easily one of the standout tracks on the album. Their trip to Ireland also resulted in 'Battle of the Bogside,' which tells the story of the 1969 civil rights riots in Derry and is delivered in Terence Brennan's trademark punk/hardcore style. Brennan delivers up another barnburner with 'Never Beat the Irish,' a tale of the indomitable Irish spirit in the face of adversity and one which is sure to be a hit at their live shows, not to mention in the halls of Notre Dame. Brennan's two tracks, along with the vividly brutal 'Bare Knuckles Man,' serve to remind the listener that Shilelagh Law can still bring it on with the best of them. Gardner contributes two songs to the mix from two opposite ends of the spectrum. 'Under the Flag' is a moving tribute to a fallen firefighter, complete with marching drums and uillean pipes wailing in the background. 'The Liver Song' is a tongue-in-cheek look back at a drinking life that would be right at home in any Social Distortion set list.
While the songwriting may take center stage, it is impossible to ignore the music and production values on this release. Shilelagh Law has come a long way from their stripped-down debut album, 2001's 'Half the Bottle Down.' The layers of instrumentation and vocal harmonies are deep and complex without being overbearing. The two instrumental tracks, arranged by Denis McCarthy, highlight the careful attention to the placement of each instrument in the mix, as well as featuring some top-notch playing. Not only are we treated to McCarthy's skillful fiddle and whistle work, but a number of guest musicians lend their flutes, pipes and bouzoukis to the effort. While this may bring to mind a dangerously overloaded plate at a picnic, fear not, enjoy your potato salad. Every instrument is clear, perfectly placed, and lends itself to the whole.
'One and Nine' is a big step up for Shilelagh Law. While some of their oldest fans may miss the days when it was just four guys playing four instruments in front of forty people at the local pub, this album resonates with the confidence of a band that has fully come into its own. Each member of the band shows growth not only in their individual instruments, but in their understanding of what they can bring to a song. '1 and 9' is the album that some of us always knew these lads were capable of making. It is a grand thing that they finally figured it out for themselves.