Tuesday, 17 September 2013

ALBUM REVIEW: Our Krypton Son

The Derry-Londonderry troubadour's successful debut album is defined by versatility, experimentation and feeling

I can still remember watching Our Krypton Son in action for the first time. His seemingly perpetually sorrowful expression never seemed to deter him as he strummed away at a series of catchy acoustic chords in Derry-Londonderry's Cafe Nervosa some three years ago. Now, I didn't hear him for long - but what I heard was impressive enough to be remembered. This guy, I thought, has the right attitude. He can go places.

Sure enough, Our Krypton Son, or Chris McConaghy if you prefer to use his actual name, has commanded a sizeable following, the attention of Smalltown America Records and perhaps most importantly, a full band. With all that in tow, he's crafted a mighty fine debut album.

McConaghy's stylistic command is clearly evident in opening number "When I First Lay Dreaming". The thumping of drums and the strumming of guitars give way to wistful, David Bowie-esque vocals that, despite being drowned out a little by the rich instrumentals, are remarkably assured. While not quite as strong musically, the mood-lifting "Ill Wind" is catchier and more exuberant. Its upbeat, folky tone, defined by the mid song banjo solo, is the first sign of the varied experimentation that, in many ways, defines this record.

"Gargantuan", his most promising single to date, successfully combines the positives of the first two tracks, albeit with marginally more prominent beats. It's finger-clickin' good... if there were any nerves present earlier in the recording, they've been stripped away by now.

Contrary to its title, "Season In Hell" features a return to folky jollity and an exceptionally catchy riff or two. When one shares the struggle to escape that is evident in the lyrics, it is easy to understand why McConaghy has approached the song in this way. Struggles then take a backseat to understated bliss in "Catalonian Love Song", where you almost certainly sense that the songwriter visited one of the most beautiful cities in the world – Barcelona, in this case – and was inspired to write the dreamiest vocals and most memorable bell-driven riff he could think of. One only feels disappointment as bells, guitar and vocals quietly die out to be replaced by the prolonged sound of a closing drum beat; it's the sort of song you don't want to hear end.

While not quite as idealistic, or possibly enduring, the acoustically driven "Sunlight In The Ashes" is just as relaxing, and more musically rounded to boot. A tune that could belong in any era, it raises the irony that McConaghy signed with Smalltown America, because this is a song that literally wouldn't sound out of place in a small town in America. If the backing vocals are a little too echoey, at least McConaghy remains inventive.

"Birds On The Skylight" is McConaghy at his most poetic, sidestepping cheesiness to provide a dependable chronicle of powerlessness; by now, this Krypton Son has established himself as a fluid musical storyteller. Along with the drifty "Twitch", it's as close to his roots as he will come on this record, the reflective lyrics and rather old school arrangements of both songs essentially speaking to the needs of the "common man" in the North west of Ireland.

A rather brief, but gentle, detour into Mumford & Sons territory follows with "This Jealous Heart", before McConaghy signs off with the piano driven ballads "I'll Never Learn To Say Goodbye" and "Plutonium". Equally as heartfelt and genuine as one another, these songs cap off the record by successfully capturing what most independent artists strive to capture on their debut albums; the expressive and relatable clarity of the joy and pain in their own life experiences. Or, as McConaghy himself would put it, "memory, time, love, death, work, jealousy - the usual sh*t really."