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This review was first published on CLUAS in 2003
Other albums reviewed in 2003

Mumblin' Deaf Ro'

Review of his debut album 'Senor, my friend...'

Early 2003 has unveiled an intriguing fresh face in Mumblin' Deaf Ro. - a songwriter brimming with melodic charm and devout individuality. If what you're looking for in new Irish acts this year is crafted, polished light rock (sorry, Gemma Hayes) or ersatz epic angst (sorry, Woodstar), then Ro is definitely NOT the man for you. He'll never be on the cover of "Hot Press", and for this we shall be grateful. If, however, you need a new heir to thrust even further forward the legion of understated intimate artists we have on offer, including Paul O'Reilly, Boa Morte and The Last Post, then "Senor, My Friend?" is an essential listen.

Mumblin' Deaf RoMumblin' Deaf Ro is, to these ears, a modern folk player, who writes timeless tales with an acute pop sensibility. His songs are deceptively complex, yet flow with effortless ease and are fully formed without ever sounding overly thought-out or moulded. In the finest folk tradition, the melody lines are long and abundantly worded. The vocals are yearning, always reaching for somewhere, and often crackle under the weight of their own sheer expression. The songs are similarly opulent lyrically. In fact there is enough narrative surge and precocious wisdom here to potentially fill a book, let alone a record!

Opening track "Every Now And Then?" features astounding guitar-picking which rambles delightfully, conjuring the sway of a Belle & Sebastian classic using only those six strings. A shy hospital (possibly psychiatric) patient falls for a lady wheeled into his ward, who is still in love with the man who put her there. He tells us of how "These days her mind doesn't work so well / But every now and then she gets a moment when it's hard to tell". It's the saddest yet sweetest sentiment you could ever hear. "It Never Even Entered My Mind" is a delicately sung piano ballad of lost love, which will break your heart. The singer is openly baffled as to why his lover has walked out of his life and is aching to let her know that his feelings never diminished or faltered for a second.

A recurring theme threading many of the songs is the conflict between the banality of work and 'ordinary' life versus the dreams we have and the life we really desire. As Ro sings on perhaps the standout track "The Hero Is A Graduate", "There's a million guys just like myself / Doing one thing but the heart is some place else". That's something to which most of us can relate! The melody, especially in the chorus, is simply divine and will have you trying to sing along the moment you hear it, while the solitary guitar line is again startlingly mellifluous. On "Keep The Line Movin'", a sympathetic character contentedly states that "I could sleep safe in my bed just knowing I'm good at my job." However, there's seems to be an unwitting mood of resignation and wasted talent despite the singer's cheery delivery, as if, possibly, he is trying to convince himself of his happiness.

Closing track "The Ballad of Lonesome Ray James" reflects on the struggles, successes and untimely death of a boxer, who sings "Twenty-one years after I was born / I left my job working in a storeroom / And hoping for a break / I punched above my weight". It's the ultimate story of an underdog, who "beat better fighters by having a bigger heart," only to lose not only the championship bout but his life.

The album is a home-recorded project, but Ro enlists the help of a small troupe of musicians to play written parts and many tracks therefore have a more fleshed-out feel. This is best achieved on "What's That Sound?", which features, most notably, a simplistic piano lead and a seductively warm bass. The vocals are dreamy and the pop group rhythm is reminiscent of the High Llamas and rising stars The Thrills.

The drum clashes and heavy piano on "These Men Get Paid To Know" initially seem overbearing but soon become integral, lending the distinct chord changes much weight. The combination of guitar, piano and percussion at the instrumental bridge and outro are particularly glorious and wouldn't sound out of place on a Harvest Ministers record. "Caledonian Friend" benefits from a similar group effect. Importantly, even on these fuller arrangements, there is an endearing fragility and modesty in the demo-fresh sound created.

The intimate quality home production can accomplish is most evident on "This Simple Life" with its gently entwined guitars beautifully mixed and complemented by an almost whispered melody, which once more is to die for. "Can't Help Fading To Grey" centres on a more traditional acoustic strum and yet another impossibly melodic chorus, recalling Revelino's best moments.

Other people's opinions of "Senor, My Friend?" might be less enthusiastic, as this music won't be to everyone's liking. The lower-than-lo-fi production may grate many and your music teacher might try to persuade you that the timbre of the vocals can waver at times or some similar nonsense. Others might find the songs offensively twee or too 'old-fashioned'. None of these arguments are relevant in my mind.

For me, even at this foetal stage, this record is destined to be one of the year's finest Irish releases. Mumblin' Deaf Ro's music is of remarkable feeling, imagination and honesty. It gushes pure talent. Your next step is to download "The Ballad of Lonesome Ray James" on this very website and judge for yourself. Hopefully many of you will come to love this collection of songs as much as I have.

Ollie O'Leary

(bullet) Check out also the CLUAS interview with Mumblin' Deaf Ro.

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