Common Thread: Underrated Albums from Irish Performers and Bands (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Common Thread is a regular feature on in which we offer up mini-reviews of a small (and often very diverse) assortment of albums that all have one specific shared trait; that "common thread" can vary from column to column. 

Deep in the Heart of Nowhere, Bob Geldof (1986, Atlantic)

Even if the name doesn’t strike a bell to you, you’ve certainly heard one of Bob Geldof’s songs – Geldof is one of the two songwriters (Ultravox’s Midge Ure being the other) behind Band Aid’s enduring holiday staple “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” a charity single Geldof was responsible for organizing. (Geldof was also the organizer of the legendary concert festival Live Aid.) But the former Boomtown Rats frontman has seldom ever got much love either from American radio or from music critics for his solo work, which is a real shame because this solo debut – while admittedly a bit overly long in its cassette and CD incarnations (the vinyl release deletes three cuts and edits several others and doesn’t seem nearly so sprawling) – is a fun, fun listen and sports a star-studded cast that includes Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, Eric Clapton, Brian Setzer, Midge Ure, Alison Moyet, Maria McKee, the Fixx’s Jamie West-Oram, Blondie’s Clem Burke, and Squeeze’s Jools Holland, to name just a few guests. The material is also Geldof’s best set of songs in six years, if not his catchiest batch yet, and songs like “This Heartless Heart” and “This Is the World Calling” (the latter featuring Lennox, McKee, and Moyet teaming up to provide the backing vocals) boast very strong and easy memorable melodies. Perhaps most fun of all, though, is “Love Like a Rocket,” which features Clapton on guitar and the lyrics of which serve as Geldof’s self-imagined sequel to the Kinks’ story-song classic “Waterloo Sunset,” so if you’ve ever wondered what happened to Terry and Julie, here’s just one possible answer.

Poetic Champions Compose, Van Morrison (1987, Mercury)

Actually, you could make a case for Morrison’s entire post-St. Dominic’s Preview body of work being quite underrated. While his run of hits in the U.S. may have all but stopped by 1973 (though the title cut of 1978’s Wavelength came close to returning him to the Top 40), Morrison never actually stopped making fine albums, and while nothing he’s done since then may quite equal the majesty of such discs as Astral Weeks or Moondance, his albums have largely been consistently decent, if not occasionally even magical. This is one of the most frequently overlooked albums in his ‘80s output, but it’s arguably his most underrated. There are some fabulous songs here, among them “Did Ye Get Healed?,” “Queen of the Slipstream,” and “Spanish Steps,” but the album’s biggest highlight is the tender, stirring ballad “Someone Like You,” which is easily one of the prettiest songs, if not the prettiest, in Morrison's entire catalog and, in a perfect world, would have become a modern-day wedding standard; thankfully, it’s at least garnered the attention of some film producers, and the song has been put to use in many a movie, most notably as the song playing as Renee Zellweger and Colin Firth share a kiss in the falling snow at the end of Bridget Jones’ Diary.

To the Faithful Departed, The Cranberries (1996, Island)

It’s easy to see why this album was so polarizing upon its release: listen to this alongside either of the band’s first two albums (the dreamy, Sundays-like jangle-pop of Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? and the harder-edged No Need to Argue), and this album is fairly jarring in comparison, if only because it frequently gets considerably more raucous than anything the band had ever previously released, especially on the manic rocker “Salvation,” so yes, you will be greatly disappointed if you’re desiring a disc full of “Linger” sound-alikes. But too much attention was paid to what this disc was not, and too few lines of print were devoted to actually judging the album on its own merits, and this disc is actually an awfully fun listen, especially if you’ve always wondered what the band could do if they allowed themselves to cut loose. Dolores O’Riordan and her bandmates show a fire and a muscularity to them that was never previously detectable, and the hooks are just as omnipresent as before, as can be seen on strong cuts like “Free to Decide” and “When You’re Gone,” the latter of which effectively hearkens back to the early days of rock and roll with its slight hint of doo-wop. The album’s biggest flaw is simply that it’s too long and might have benefitted from omitting a couple of cuts (especially the more topical material like “Bosnia,” which doesn’t work nearly as well), but it stands up a lot better quality-wise to the band’s first two albums than most critics might have you believe, and it’s a lot more intriguing and musically diverse, too.

Where We Belong, Boyzone (1998, Ravenous/Mercury)

This album barely got any airplay in this country (though it sold like hotcakes all over Europe), but, much like Norwegian duo M2M’s similarly-underrated Shades of Purple, it’s much more appealing and credible than your average teen-pop album. For starters, the lyrics are seldom as banal as that of your average early Backstreet Boys song, and the band’s taste in outside writers is shockingly great for a teen-pop group: they even do songs penned by the likes of Jim Steinman, Tracy Chapman (a surprisingly pleasant cover of “Baby Can I Hold You”), former power-popper Mark Hudson, Desmond Child, and Rythm Syndicate’s Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken (who penned Donny Osmond’s surprisingly appealing late-‘80s comeback hits “Soldier of Love” and “My Love Is a Fire.”)  Secondly, there’s a distinct soul influence (especially on the appealing, early-Motown-channeling soul-pop of “Picture of You,” which could nearly pass for a lost Culture Club song from Colour by Numbers and really should have been a Top Ten hit but sadly missed the Hot 100 entirely) that keeps the disc from sounding too bubblegum, and Ronan Keating sings with a great deal more conviction and sincerity than your average teen-popper, all of which helps make the band more comparable to Take That (“Back for Good”), who matured greatly over their brief existence and ultimately found a sound that had less to do with teen-pop than tasteful adult-contemporary pop. [Keating would go on to cut some fine solo discs, and his second solo affair, Destination, would surprisingly be almost entirely written and produced by former New Radicals leader Gregg Alexander and Rick Nowels.] You’d have to be a real pop snob to not find some guilty pleasures on here, and considering that used copies of this disc tend to be commonly seen for a dollar or even less, it’s a great value for the price.

Rise, Rubyhorse (2002, Island)

The album – and the band itself – failed to attract much notice in the U.S. outside of Boston, where they would become a huge cult favorite, but the band was respected enough among those in the know to pull off the coup of getting one of the most legendary rock stars of all time, George Harrison, to appear on this album, the Beatle’s ever-distinctive slide guitar work cropping up on the cut “Punchdrunk,” which makes it all the more stunning that so few critics on these shores took notice of this group. The songwriting throughout the disc is quite strong and never quite lets up – in fact, the second-catchiest song here, “Live Through This,” is near-hidden and doesn’t crop up until the penultimate slot in the track sequence – but the biggest knockout of all here is the opener “Sparkle,” a shimmering dance-rock cut that plays like a cross between the melodic pub-rock of Del Amitri and the mid-‘90s club experiments of U2. [Lead vocalist David Farrell even sounds quite a bit like Justin Currie, so you could be forgiven for mistaking the opening verse of the song for a Del Amitri record.] Why the song failed to reach the Hot 100 in America is a bit of a head-scratcher, ‘cause pop/rock songs from the early ‘00s don’t get much catchier.

Borrowed Heaven, The Corrs (2004, Atlantic)

It’s a bit of a head-scratcher why the Corrs never really became a household name on American shores. The family band – consisting of sisters Andrea (lead vocals), Sharon (violin), and Caroline (drums) and brother Jim (guitar) – were a remarkably talented bunch, capable of both writing and playing their own songs, and an incredibly photogenic group, at that. They also attracted the production talents of legends like Robert John “Mutt” Lange, Glen Ballard, and David Foster. Yet, overlooking 2001’s#34-peaking “Breathless,” they could never seem to land a Top 40 hit on these shores. For that reason, nearly every studio album of theirs could be called wildly underrated, but the most criminally overlooked is arguably this release, which is overflowing with great hooks (“Summer Sunshine,” “Angel,” “Even If”), lovely melodies (the vaguely Carpenters-like “Long Night,” the Bono-penned “Time Enough for Tears”), and irresistible grooves (the world-music-tinged title cut). Best of all is the uncharacteristically vindictive “Humdrum,” written from the point of a view of a housewife who feels taken for granted by her husband (“I want to take you for granted … drift while you’re talking … forget your birthday and shrink all your clothes”); for an adult-contemporary pop song, it surprisingly packs a whole lot of attitude in both its lyric and music. [Newly-converted fans are also highly urged to check out the live album VH1 presents The Corrs: Live in Dublin, which includes breathtakingly gorgeous covers of Ryan Adams’ “When the Stars Go Blue” (done as a duet with U2’s Bono) and Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and a fiery, show-stopping medley of the instrumental Irish folk tunes “Joy of Life” and “Trout in the Bath.”]

Eyes Open, Snow Patrol (2006, A&M)

This album may not have gone entirely unnoticed by U.S. record-buyers – it did, after all, yield a Top Ten hit in the ballad “Chasing Cars” after the song was prominently featured on Grey’s Anatomy. But it’s still astounding that the album itself didn’t perform far better than it did – its reviews weren’t quite as glowing as that of its predecessor, Final Straw, and whereas Eyes Open topped the charts in the U.K. and went seven times platinum there, it only reached #27 in the U.S. (where, confusingly, the band’s next two albums would reach the Top Ten despite not containing any Top 40 hits; “Chasing Cars,” in fact, sadly remains their only Top 40 hit on these shores to date) and failed to yield a follow-up Top 40 hit, in spite of the fact that there are several songs here that sound like much more obvious hits than “Chasing Cars,” namely the rockers “You’re All I Have” and, even better, “Hands Open,” which packs more hooks into its three minutes than most rock bands pack into a single album and is arguably the catchiest song the band’s ever crafted. The hooks never let up, either, and cuts like “It’s Beginning to Get to Me,” “You Could Be Happy,” and the emotional, gradually-building near-six-minute epic “Open Your Eyes” are nearly just as memorable. Even if this were the only album the band had ever made, it’d still be ridiculous that “Chasing Cars” is the only Top 40 hit the band has to its name in the United States.