The gaping cracked face of Shane McGowan peers behind every note in this Irish-punk cracker. In fact, he’s even gone as far as writing the sleeve notes, co-penning a couple of tracks and making a welcome guest vocal appearance on Chino’s Place. A re-release of The Popes’ 2000 debut Holloway Boulevard and a fifteen-track mix of some of the best live performances since then, Release the Beast is a satisfying slab of folk-rock.
Post-McGowan, The Popes still offer a raucous concoction of traditional Irish instrumentation and songs stewing with sex, drugs and filthy blues rock. A far sight better than Waiting For Herb-era The Pogues, but not as enthralling as the grimy sounds of Rum Sodomy and the Lash, The Popes have achieved something that eluded the Shane-less Pogues – they have made a good rocking album without McGowan at the helm.
McGowan assembled The Popes after he was unceremoniously hustled out of The Pogues (note the cheeky sight-rhyme of the band names). Hand picked for their particular musical talents and personalities, McGowan exudes pride in the accompanying sleeve notes: “The rhythm section is as tight as a nun’s c**t – drummer Andy Ireland is a genius of his art�and I’d like to break his pretty little hands.” And there are indeed times when the music is so damned accomplished and thrilling you want to tap your feet right through the floorboards. The sheer joy of listening to the speed of Tom McMahon’s banjo at the end of Sleepless Nights sends your legs into a Michael Flatley frenzy.
Lead Paul “Mad Dog” McGuinness at times sounds like Van Morrison by way of Tom Waits, but most of all his voice is similar to – you’ve guessed it – Shane McGowan. He retains a sense of danger, and although at times we’re listening to the safe and clich�d fiddling and banjo playing, we’re never too far from a drug or sex reference. With lyrics such as “She gives me everything I need, uppers and downers and moonshine whisky, dope and coke and smack and speed” this certainly isn’t Riverdance. McGuinness can’t quite write dirty, gruff romantic tunes in the same vein as early Pogues, but waltz-tempo New Rose and Sleepless Nights are wonderful drunken ballads.
Live, The Popes are at their most energetic, and McGuinness is appealingly sleazy and gruff. Kicking things off with “song number one in the Popes’ songbook – Church of the Holy Spook”, McGuinness launches into a husky version of the opening track from previous album The Snake.
In fact, when he’s not impersonating McGowan, McGuinness’s voice is actually closer to the traditional Irish style of Christy Moore. He also comes across as less inebriated than the slurred chaos we’ve come to expect from McGowan. Dedicating The Snake’s Aisling to his “beautiful red-head daughter” you begin to feel that perhaps McGuinness isn’t quite as uncontrollable as we’ve been led to believe. More raucous than Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, but not as wild as The Who‘s Live at Leeds, Release the Beast is both catchy and plenty of fun.
In the end, there’s nothing spectacularly distinctive about The Popes, and nothing so edgy, confrontational and soulful as when McGowan’s in charge, but this is still a very good album with a gutsy live recording to boot. Perfect for parties, and destined to be plucked from the collection on St Pat’s day, this is actually an accomplished and at times exciting album played by some of the best musicians in Ireland.