Gerard Smith,
Hamtramck: Heaven
(Beagletone, 2000)

Hamtramck: Heaven is the unusual title of Gerard Smith's debut solo album. Hamtramck, for those who do not excel in geography, is in Michigan, the state where Gerard grew up. The general tone of the CD salutes the Dublin influence but seamlessly incorporates original songs from as far afield as Newfoundland and Somerset, these having amusingly wicked lyrics that would go down well during a pub session, and a "live" environment would, I'm sure, bring out the best of Gerard's talents. This is as near as I'm likely to get, however, so I welcome the chance to hear his variations of songs old and new. Regrettably, the words are not printed on the sleeve for the edification of the listener, and on two or three of the songs, lyrics elude even determined ears, as his singing diction deteriorates.

"Cruiscan Lan" opens the album with a definitive folk-rock beat, and his vocals blend the rawness of Shane McGowan with the energy of the late Phil Lynott. The second track, "The Maid of Cabra West," draws your focus more on what is being sung, rather than how, and the black lyrics of this Dublin street ballad sketch a rough picture of a xenophobic psychopath and his facile explanation of why he was driven to murder, not once but twice. Very Celtic humour, a sharply tasty bite of satire! The repetitive nuances of "The Quality of Work Life" enforce the tedium and oppressive nature of factory working conditions that contrast with the life of a sailor's son in "Sonny's Dream." The oppression here is that of a possessive mother, a sea-widow who determines that her son will not leave for the freedom and the harsh life that claimed her husband and his father.

The tone lightens considerably with the strong guitar and cheeky lyrics on "With My Rubber Boots On," a raunchy tale typical of sailors ashore throughout the ages in any land! A rollicking sing-along song, the outcome is no surprise, but it's a grand humourous tune. "Enoch Hill" continues the levity with the story of a well-known Beaver Island bootlegger, a fairly predictable smuggling song, enlivened by Terry Murphy on banjo.

"The Finding of Moses" is a peculiarly charming if somewhat bizarre blending of the Nile and the Liffey, written in the early 1800s by a blind Dublin street singer by the name of Zozimus. His take on the Old Testament tale of Moses and the Pharoah's daughter is amusingly memorable and quite unique. Gerard describes the eighth track, a blend of jigs, as "Straight up hard core diddly," an accurate but disarmingly endearing description. It is followed by "The Ghost of the Irish Brigade," written by his father and arranged by himself; it is has spooky lyrics and a haunting melody to send a shiver up the back of your neck.

"Waves of Confusion" is marred by the fact that Gerard's words are nigh incomprehensible, and the fuzzy distortion of the accompaniment seems deliberate in adding to the confusion. The bluegrass style on "Henry, My Son" speeds things up again to a welcome toe-tapping beat, and he returns to raucous form with the irreverent "Twice Daily," written by the late Adge Cutler of Wurzel fame. Its earthy lyrics are typical of that inoffensive bawdy style, to be sung with a knowing twinkle in the eye, and as the story progresses, Gerard's Irish-American tones seem accented with shades of a "Zumerzet" burr.

The mood alters abruptly with the harsh and uncompromising "Which Side Are You On?" He sings unaccompanied, this one track standing out on the album with all the implacability of a picket line. Unfortunately, the recording of "Making of a Modern Myth" once more renders Gerard's lyrics indecipherable; while the bodhran conveys a new age/Native American feel, it almost totally drowns out his words. Lacking definition, it is easy to ignore this offering, as it also gives a sense of imbalance to the album as a whole. He ends with the rousing "Come Out Ye Black and Tans," a defiant rebel song which, like many, has an undeniably catchy tune to it, whether or not you defer to its sentiment.

Out of 15 tracks, there are only two low-points, but the highlights of "The Maid of Cabra West," "With My Rubber Boots On," "The Finding of Moses" and "Twice Daily" make this a worthwhile album for their inclusion alone. All in all, this is a fine addition to a CD collection, and the diversity of instruments and songs should hold the attention of even a luke-warm folkie.

[ by Jenny Ivor ]
Rambles: 7 June 2002

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