Tuesday, March 3, 2009

28 Greatest Albums: Fatima Mansions - 'Viva Dead Ponies'

While in France I picked up a copy of an album called 'Viva Dead Ponies' by Fatima Mansions. Fatima Mansions take their name from a housing project in Dublin built in the 1950's. By all accounts, the place is a nightmare.

I seem to recall having a long distance phone talk with my Dad from France where he told me where the name came from. I hadn't heard the group before I bought it so I was running blind. I do this occasionally, buying something solely on the aesthetics of the packaging. I've made a couple of great discoveries and just as many duds. This is by far the best shot in the dark I ever took.

'Viva Dead Ponies' is almost impossible to take in. Stylistically it refuses to be pinned down, '80's synth throwing itself into the gnawing buzz saw of '90's distorted guitar, Irish tenor crooning suddenly dashed upon the rocks of nihilistic punk bellow. Cathal Coughlan, lead singer/songwriter/visionary, takes us on a tour of modern Dublin and it is terrifying.

Here is a track list.

1. Angel's Delight (4:32)
2. Concrete Block (0:16)
3. Mr. Baby (2:53)
4. The Door-to-Door Inspector (4:13)
5. Start The Week (0:25)
6. You're A Rose (3:31)
7. Legoland 3 (0:27)
8. Thursday (3:38)
9. Ceaucescu Flashback (0:13)
10. Broken Radio No.1 (4:38)
11. Concrete Block (0:27)
12. Farewell Oratorio (0:59)
13. Look What I Stole For Us, Darling (3:05)
14. The White Knuckle Express (04:15)
15. Chemical Cosh (01:42)
16. Tima Mansio Speaks (0:17)
17. A Pack Of Lies (02:52)
18. Viva Dead Ponies (05:13)
19. More Smack, Vicar (0:52)

I lost my copy of the album somewhere along the line and it went out of print. Melody tracked it down on eBay and bought it for me. Someday I might have to dedicate a daily post for each of the above songs.

For now I'm going to concentrate on 'You're A Rose', 'A Pack of Lies', and 'Viva Dead Ponies'.

'You're A Rose' is reminiscent of a Bruce Springsteen song played by Duran Duran wasted in a pub. Lyrically it is filled with the kind of paradoxes that litter the landscape of the album. The singer praises his lover for being a 'rose in a crown of thorns' but as the music mounts he describes her attributes as if they are contained in some laundry list of atrocity...

You don't mind the queues, the burning trains
The squalid, mute despair
You don't mind deceiving lovers
You ignore the stinking air
Well, now accept you're just a person
Not the touchstone, not the face
of the ages past, their grandeur
and the death-wish of the Master Race
You're a rose

The pop majesty of the backing track makes for very strange listening. It is one of those pounding anthems of love and devotion that are the backbone of rock and roll. But look a bit closer and Cathal Coughlan eviscerates what stands for loyalty and commitment in 3 minutes of sing-along depravity.

'A Pack of Lies' uses a rolling trill of a piano riff to give us a false sense of security. As this confection bubbles, Coughlan tells the story of a dying woman seduced into a marriage by a foreigner. He brings her back to his homeland and leaves her to die chained to a railing on the ferry. Returning to her country he is now exalted and held up as a leader. The song ends thusly...

The moral of this story is: This land's a victim-farm
Don't you ever feed a beggar here, he'll eat your fucking arm
And don't blaspheme the strong ones if you want to stay alive
Now smile and give them thanks when they say, "Here's a pack of lies!

All of this takes place over what vaguely resembles an Elton John/Bernie Taupin song stripped of all '70's bombast. The keyboard is ALMOST like a real piano, the voice swoons and growls, but all is contained and perfectly okay. In short, it sounds like a lie.

Except for the snippet 'More Smack, Vicar', 'Viva Dead Ponies' is the last straw on the broken back of the album. It is a desert howl funneled through a Dylanesque ghost town. As I listened, I connected it to a tradition. We'll call it the apocalyptic evil epic dirge. The Rolling Stones 'Sympathy for the Devil'. Guns 'n Roses 'Civil War'. The Bands 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'.

These songs tend to have a sort of folk song quality to them. 'Viva Dead Ponies' is no exception. Built mainly around an acoustic guitar, you picture the singer on a cobblestone street with a battered hat upturned and empty. The instrumentation sounds like a hostile invasion, as if the modern world is encroaching upon the purer artistry of another time. I'll reprint these lyrics in full...

(Retail groceries...)

Do you know how Jesus feels
When he's behind his sportscar wheel
And the windscreen glass is all gummed up with blood?
Do you know how old Jesus feels?

For he walks the Earth again
But not in Mecca or in Jerusalem
No, he sells papers and beer in a shop in Crouch End [London, England]
For he walks the Earth again

Viva dead ponies
Come out and fight me
Viva dead ponies
Customers: Drop dead

I have switched the fridges off
And I will burn down this whole stinking shop
I will get drunk and I will break every little Islamical law
For I have switched the fridges off

Viva dead ponies
Come out and fight me
Viva dead ponies
Customers: Drop dead

"Haven't made love for a while.
It's the best way to make a child,"
Said Jesus to the disciples.
He then further said, "If you can't shift
This crate of Brillo pads by Friday
Vengeance will be mine!"

So viva dead ponies
You're afraid to fight me
Customers--pay what you owe!
Viva dead ponies
back from the circus
They lunched with Jesus
Fire in their noses all gone, all gone...

Sadly, Fatima Mansions broke up before I could ever see them live. They released several other albums, one of which I own. But something about this album in particular strikes me so deeply that it almost defies articulation. Cathal Coughlan's voice is an ungodly mix of rasp and velvet, brass and whisper. Nothing can be taken at face value. Almost relentlessly desperate and depressing lyrically, the music counteracts those valleys with almost maniacal heights of release.

If you give over and sing along, you feel as if you are tumbling down whatever walls of Jericho surround you. Only to come face to face with a new unnamed much higher wall. Built out of material you cannot recognize.

This is one for the time capsule.

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