‘Holy Cities’ – Glasvegas and David Holmes album reviews

It would be easy to fill this review with descriptions of how these albums have, between them, borrowed variously from The Jesus and Mary Chain, Neu!/krautrock and Phil Spector. More intriguing than that however is how both ‘Glasvegas’ and ‘The Holy Pictures’ are very much products of their respective cities – Glasgow and Belfast. Owing to the remarkable and long-standing social and cultural similarities and interactions between these two close-knit post-industrial municipalities it is interesting how each artist has interpreted their respective city – central to each album – in starkly different ways, each invoking different memories and languages to conjure a snapshot of home.

Of course this isn’t a sociology essay, and we want to know what the music is like. At first Glasvegas do admittedly come across as ‘Mary Chain stooges at a talent show with a dead ringer for Joe Strummer leading the parade. Yet their somewhat monochrome image betrays a deep and original package, meaning that they stand apart from many of the current crop who often appear to have lazily picked a band from previous generations to ape. Glasvegas’s ability to tell stories – refracted through an incredibly forceful soundscape – about less than fashionable topics such as football violence, the death of a father and other themes which would probably be anathema to many on the bandwagon makes them seem somewhat antiquated, yet it is this ability to walk against the tide that means they are wholly essential to making pop music interesting. However it often feels that Glasvegas have tacked Glasgow onto their songs in the same way that other bands have tacked their forebears onto their art. ‘Flowers & Football Tops’, ‘Geraldine’, ‘It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry’ and ‘Daddy’s Gone’ have all established themselves in people’s heads over the past few months whether it be from constant rotation on music channels on television or BBC fare such as ‘Football Focus’. These songs will endure, but the long-term future of Glasvegas remains less certain as it seems that they have used up all their reference points in one heady record.

Their longevity is questionable. Everything is arguably set up for them to be a one-album wonder – from the novelty name to their fixed image and preoccupations. They may provide a more accessible insight into the darker side of Glasgow – and indeed wider contemporary British – city life than their compatriots Errors and Mogwai, but after the initial untamed thrill of ‘Glasvegas’ has worn off you cannot help but feel somewhat short-changed.

If ‘Glasvegas’ is a very personal and dark glamorisation of a city’s underbelly, then ‘The Holy Pictures’ by David Holmes is a scrapbook of the artist’s youth in Belfast during a period which stands in stark contrast to the current post-ceasefire ‘peace process’ era. While many songs on the album may sound whimsically in tune with the current positive mood, Holmes actually bemoans the loss of an intensity which the Troubles brought to both himself and the dance scene in Belfast in general during days which people often describe as being among the city’s darkest. Indeed, in a recent interview with Lisa Verrico in The Sunday Times Holmes described how he missed the visceral edge of the dark days in Belfast and the sense of escapism that his semi-legendary club nights in the Art College provided. All of this is wired into the sound of ‘The Holy Pictures’.

Indeed the marvellous lead single ‘I Heard Wonders’ has been promoted with a video which depicts the spirit of change and optimism that 1968 visited upon Europe and the USA. While the fortieth anniversary of that momentous year has provoked much debate regarding its long-term implications in Northern Ireland in particular, Holmes eschews direct political debate and has concentrated on making a very personal album which has universal appeal. ‘The Holy Pictures’ is dotted with moments of true beauty – none more beautiful than on the album’s piano-led swansong, ‘The Ballad of Sarah & Jack’ which is Holmes’s tribute to his parents. The song is so powerfully tangible that it evokes lamentations for a Belfast which has disappeared completely – the days of dance halls and an era of comparative goodwill that existed so tantalisingly and so briefly immediately prior to the explosion of the Troubles in the late 1960s. It probably isn’t histrionic to suggest that this might be one of the best local songs ever and should soundtrack any documentary footage of early to mid 1960s Northern Ireland.

While both ‘Glasvegas’ and ‘The Holy Pictures’ are respective attempts to come to terms with home towns which share so much in common, David Holmes’s subtle imagining of a bygone Belfast is more appealing than Glasvegas’s bombastic majesty. ‘The Holy Pictures’ may be David Holmes’s masterpiece, but he still has much more in the locker. Paradoxically by rejecting the current trends in indie music, Glasvegas may run out of steam more quickly than one would anticipate. How I wish they would prove me wrong.

Source: Brazen City, September 2008


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