Dublin on the Hudson

Ex-New-Waver Pierce Turner digs up his Irish roots on the streets of New York

All the gushing articles on Irish bands we've been seeing in the music rags lately have been enough to make Irish-born singer Pierce Turner ashamed of his pedigree. Turner finds these stories, especially the ones calling Hothouse Flowers' singer and fanzine centerfold Liam O'Maonlai the next Bono, to be something of a joke. You see, rock-press hype aside, Turner feels that there are more than a few mediocre--albeit very successful--Irish acts out there.

Considering that Turner immigrated to the U.S. more than a decade ago and has yet to break through with American audiences, maybe he's just a wee bit green with envy. Not so, says Turner, who admits to being a big fan of several of his more commercially potent peers, such as the lovely Enya, whose dreamy pop single "Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)" has chalked up a surprising amount of airplay on mainstream stations. Still, Turner claims that American listeners are being hoodwinked by other less-than-authentic Irish rockers.

"Hothouse Flowers sound very American," asserts the singer. "I think that they are made to measure for American rock radio. [New York FM radio giant] WNEW has got to be the worst radio station in America, and they love Hothouse Flowers. To me, that is the greatest insult of all to a band. That means you sound just like Bad Company and Lynyrd Skynyrd."

The flavor-of-the-month mentality that has made Irish bands so fashionable these days is what irks Turner. Not that singers with a trace of a brogue were always so in vogue. Turner can recall when a certain mangy Dublin foursome played in Manhattan several years back and met with a markedly lukewarm response.

"I saw U2 play to ten people at the Ritz when I first came to New York," recalls Turner. "That band had to go out there and play continuously for two or three years before they really broke the wall down. They had to work their behinds off. People don't realize that."

Like U2, Turner also had a hard time impressing jaded Manhattan clubgoers when he first hit the states in the late Seventies. Back then there was nothing Irish about the music of Turner and his band, Major Thinkers, who modeled themselves after some of the quintessential skinny-tie new-wavers. "We wanted to be like Television and the Talking Heads--those bands," laughs Turner.

While their song "Avenue B" got some local radio and club play, the Majors didn't have much luck overall with their studied takes on Television. "We were a bit too concerned with image then, and ultimately, it strangled me creatively," laments Turner. "It all got a little trendy and pretentious."

The singer particularly hated some of the silly mannerisms expected of new-wave bands of this period, such as the almost mandatory staccato vocal style. "One day I decided I didn't want to sing like a chicken anymore," says Turner of his decision to bail out of the Majors.

The singer's new solo status meant he was free to pursue his goal of creating a kind of Irish-influenced music that would be less reverent than the Chieftains and more accessible than the Pogues. For his first LP, he enlisted the classical minimalist Philip Glass as producer. Turner's plan was to incorporate Glass' minimalist techniques, especially with strings, into an Irish folk-pop format. While that concept may sound novel, the singer claims that a similar approach was actually used on several Beatles classics.

"I knew it would work because the George Martin string arrangements for the Beatles were very minimalist," notes Turner. "You know, `Eleanor Rigby' has a very minimal string arrangement; it just pumps along without taking over and getting melodramatic. It's very muscular."

Glass, whom Turner calls "a true genius" and "a very Zen-like character," liked the originality of the singer's ideas for the album. "You can't go to Philip with a cliched pop song and say, `Write me a string arrangement for this,'|" claims the vocalist. "He won't do it." The result of their collaboration, It's Only a Long Way Across, sounded fresh without coming off as self-consciously avant-garde. Critics took to it, but barely anyone else heard the disc.

Turner is trying to reach more listeners this time around with his new album, the more pop-oriented The Sky and the Ground. Like the singer's last LP, The Sky is packed with ultra-literate and nicely understated songs about life in New York City. As well-crafted as it is, listeners who aren't big on gentle melodies and spare arrangements should be warned that the bare-bones simplicity of the record is liable to put them to sleep.

The most refreshing thing about the LP's songs is their subtle flavor of Celtic folk ballads and reels, even though there isn't a tin whistle or bouzouki to be found. Without relying on traditional instrumentation or pastoral themes, Turner is able to evoke the Irish spirit more convincingly than many of his Dublin brethren.

"I think [the Irish feel] comes through very naturally," relates Turner. "Sometimes when I'm singing this lyric about something as hard as New York City, I suddenly realize that the melody is some unusual hymn that I've heard some time in the past. I like being able to combine something that the nuns sing in Ireland with a song about the decadence of New York."

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