Neill Dougan on Groom‘s ‘gloriously melodic, boisterous ride‘ Bread And Jam
Back in the early 1990s, when your correspondent was just a wee lad, we were the proud owner of a dog. And not just any dog: This was a Tibetan Terrier, a breed at the time so rare (in Country Antrim) and unusual in appearance (kind of like a black version of the Dulux dog that had been zapped with a shrinking ray) that strangers would routinely stop us in the street to enquire as to the animal’s lineage. We called him Baggio, after the star player of Italia ‘90, and it’s fair to say we completely doted on that dog.
Sadly, Baggio met an unhappy end. Living in the countryside brought myriad dangers for canines, especially ones such as Baggio who liked to chase sheep. And so it was one fateful Sunday that we spied Baggio in a field worrying the lambs. We raced over to retrieve him, but by the time we got there a farmer had arrived at the opposite end of the field, loaded his shotgun, taken aim and fired. With his last act on this earth, Baggio staggered across the grass and died right there at our feet (note: this is actually all true). If it had taken place in this day and age, we would have been sent straight to a psychotherapist for a spot of post-trauma counselling. It being early ‘90s Ireland, however, we just never spoke about the incident and shoved the pain deep down into the pit of our stomach, where it boiled and festered, resulting in the bitter, damaged, empty husk of a man we are today.
This frankly upsetting memory comes flooding back upon listening to ‘Threadneedle Road’, a plaintive ballad and highlight of the new album ‘Bread & Jam’ by Dublin’s Groom. It’s clear that frontman Mike Stevens may have experienced a similarly distressing event in his own childhood (although his dog appears to have only been given away, not shot, so we have one up on him there in the trauma stakes): “I love my dog, but we must be parted/It’s 10 o’clock, they are taking her away, it’s a quiet Saturday… A ewe is dead and two lambs are orphaned/Her neck was gashed, I am sitting in the shed, and I know that later dad will say, ‘Were you sobbing?’”. It’s just one of many excellent moments on an album that, in classic Groom fashion, allies a multitude of clever, witty lyrics – focussing on nostalgia and memory, both celebrating and poking fun at growing up in Ireland – to a backing of irrepressible, raucous and rough-and-ready rock n’roll.
Make no mistake, ‘Bread & Jam’ is shot through with out-and-out pop gems. Single ‘Colours’ is a case in point, a giddy whoop of a chorus accompanying a lyric that seems to relate to returning to the auld sod: “When the plane slapped down like a seagull’s arse/Were you were conquered cold in the long-term parking?…Did the laughing schoolgirls line the wall at the Santry exit near Beaumont hospital?”. ‘Moving To Athlone’ glides by with an effortless “Woah-oh-oh” chorus, with more choice lines from Stevens (“Moving to Athlone just to piss and moan away/To find a wheelie bin where I’ll climb in, and from there I’ll survey/The poster crimes of Brendan Shine and David bloody Gray”) , while the cocksure, Supergrass-meets-The-Stones strut of ‘Charlie O’Loughlin Fuk Dat Shit’ possesses not only a superb title but an unbelievably exuberant, key-shifting chorus hook. The wistful ‘The Old Songs’ relates meeting an old friend at a funeral (“You pull on Benson, like the first one we smoked 28 years ago/You paid for the first round, as was the convention/Your suit worn through re-use, mine by intention”.) ‘I’ve Never Been In A Real Fight’, meanwhile, is a mediation on ageing over a taut, tense musical backing (albeit with a comical opening line of “Well we talked all night like a pair of gobshites”). ‘Don’t Listen To The Voices’ is a romantic tale (“She was impressed by my knowledge of chess/By my uncommon sense and illogical thinking”) set to a superlative, acoustic guitar-led tune that wouldn’t be out of place on ‘Tupelo Honey’ with its ecstatic refrain of “Love burst from my every pore”.
If one were inclined to nit-pick, one could speculate that some listeners might find Stevens’ nasal yelp an acquired taste. There are also one or two disposable moments, among them the brief, ramshackle ‘Dermot, Dermot, Dermot, Dermot’ (although it arguably merits inclusion for that title alone) and the curiously underwhelming closer ‘1995’. Moreover, the album’s lyrical references are so specifically – at times esoterically – Irish that the chances of it finding an international audience would seem to be virtually zero (a fact the band themselves appear to appreciate – Stevens even sings “You non-Irish wouldn’t understand/But we’re bringing desperate messages to you, like only a deflated population can” on the spirited romp of opener ‘Rónan Agus Áine, Cá Bhfuil Tú?’).
All in all, though, ‘Bread & Jam’ is a gloriously melodic, boisterous ride, for which special mention must go to Jeroen Saegeman, Will McDermott and Ruan Van Vliet, who essay a gloriously loose-limbed, spontaneous-sounding backing to Mike Stevens’ unhinged utterances. But this is Stevens’ show really, with the frontman fast establishing himself as one of the most acute and amusing chroniclers of life on this strange little isle.
Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a long-overdue appointment with a psychotherapist.