Prodigal Sons return with superb second album
Cavan Cola may have gone from the shelf, but there is still plenty of fizz popping in Sons of Southern Ulster’s latest studio release, ‘Sinners and Lost Souls’, out for release June 15.
Five years after the Bailieborough-born purveyors of post-punk left an indelible mark on the Irish music scene with ‘Foundry Folk Songs’ (2015), the band are back, digging ever deeper into the nostalgic undergrowth of youth and survival, living in Cavan in the 1980s.
If ‘Foundry Folk Songs’ portrayed an image shimmering with sentimentality and wistfulness, ‘Sinners and Lost Souls’ is the after dark version.
The surroundings as described across its 11 majestically curated tracks have an added realness.
Half a decade passed between the FFS and SLS coming into being. In life terms, it mirrors the progression of childhood into teenage years - a metaphor with which lead singer Justin Kelly agrees.
The Anglo-Celt caught up with the Sons of Southern Ulster (SOSU), partly via online video chat, and the rest by email.
Wearing sunglasses, Justin talks first, from the leafy garden surrounds of his home in Boston.
Guitarist David Meagher, a Professor of Psychiatry at Mary Immaculate College, joins in from the decking of his Limerick home. Both former members of The Panic Merchants, regularly featured on Dave Fanning’s Rock Show in the 1980s. They’re joined by fellow SOSU members - drummer Noel ‘Skinhammer’ Larkin and bassist Paddy Glackin, who tunes in despite the late hour from Western Australia.
“I suppose when there’s a story to be told you’re compelled to tell it. If you keep it inside it festers but setting it free makes for great therapy,” Justin expounds.
“Growing up in Cavan in the ’80s we were led to believe that there was no story to tell - that our lives were mundane and lumpen. Nothing could have been further from the truth. We were surrounded by stories - raging alcoholism, suicide, unwanted pregnancies, rampant paedophilia, and a f**king full scale war on our very doorstep.
“There were good things too obviously but I’ve always felt that good stories take place on the margins. They’re not black and white but grey and amorphous where the heroes belch and fart like the rest of us.”
The rawness of the music then, Justin explains, comes from a place of having always been the “butt of the joke” growing up. There was the whole “Dubs versus culchie thing” to contend with as well.
“We didn’t have the glamour of Galway or the lakes of Kerry. We had boggy fields and drumlins - incessant rain and funny accents - cute hoors so mean we could peel oranges in our pockets. We didn’t even have a province - we were Southern Ulster - unwanted by the Brits or Dublin - ignored and marginalised. As Lisa O’Neill perceptively points out ‘there is no train to Cavan’. That was no coincidence,” observes Justin.
David picks up by acknowledging the “unexpected” success of 2015’s FFS, effectively an album about Cavan, with the celebrated ‘Pop Inn’ standing out.
They had set out to create a “musical document” of the time and place they grew up in. They weren’t to know how relatable their songs were to every listener who grew up in a rural area.
Interest in the album prompted them to start playing live. A short Irish tour ensued, including gigging back on hometurf, at the Bailieborough Arts & Cultural Centre in August 2017.
On SLS the band though have stripped back the music to give the lyrics more space to breathe.
“In Foundry Folk the songs were written and recorded and then played live, whereas for Sinners and Lost Souls they were written, played live and then recorded.
“I think the latter lends to a greater sense of authenticity – these songs can all be played on an acoustic guitar without needing all the bells and whistles of the studio,” asserts David.
The challenge of making that traditionally tricky sophomoric album was however “exciting” says David, knowing full well people would hold it up against FFS.
Any fears of poor reviews however have been dispelled by plenty of positive pre-release attention from the likes of RTE’s Paul McLoone and BBC 6. There has also been a helpful plug from, Fontaines DC, a band that has shot to stardom doing something similar to SOSU - singing about where they’re from.
If all goes to plan, FFS and SLS will make up two parts of a trilogy of albums - each mapping different parts of the band’s life journey.
“I think the voice for Sinners and Lost Souls is a bit older and more embattled (even cranky!) and the songs delve deeper into the world that was captured in FFS,” David analyses. “Sinners and Lost Souls is like the story behind the story of FFS, the machinery that made that Ireland tick over at the time.
“I think in Sinners and Lost Souls has a lot of humour but also there is a greater sense of the reality of death – it kinda fits with these scary times – it’s strange to think that the opening track (Fear My Scorn) ends with the lines ‘For I spat in the face of tuberculosis and meningitis – and I lived to tell my tale’. Hopefully we can insert Coronavirus into that list of life threatening illnesses! We have already started to think about a third album and how that might round things off – maybe we should surprise ourselves with an album of pop songs.”
Justin agrees, accepting that SLS is more sonically “abrasive”, but disagrees with any suggestion that FFS was mere “sweetness and light”.
“FFS was very much built on memories of growing up in Bailieborough and people that we knew- and it was important to be respectful but also say something that’s interesting.
“This time around the lens is a bit broader so while the album is still rooted in family and the town- we were able to speak to some of the institutions that were instrumental in making us the people we are. As a lyricist I have no interest in pointlessly railing against the establishment- often times these things function against a complex backdrop rooted in time and place with a desire to serve the common good- but, as we all know, they have at times acted in a fashion that is so bereft of any morality that it merits mention.”
Growing up in a pub from an early age, Justin recalls how he was privvy to “barroom conversation” and notes, “it would be impossible to ignore such wonderful source material”.
“I hope listeners realise that everything we do is underpinned with a sense of humour. I’m as partial to a bit of gothic doom and gloom as the next man but now and then it requires an ‘occasional flicker’, as the song says.”
That death seems is a recurring motif, Justin continues: “I suppose that’s what happens in your fifties when you realize you won’t be around forever and you try to make sense of what it was all about.
“I’m not of a religious nature so I don’t have the comfort of a better world beyond. My own father wrote extensively and in many ways I feel I’ve gotten to know him better in death by the things he left behind. I’d like to think my own children will listen to the Sons when I’ve shuffled off and take some comfort. Maybe they’ll think I wasn’t so bad. A bit of a bollocks sometimes! Drank too much! But alright. Is that dark?”