My favourite albums all have a few things in common:
1. Great tracks – and no duds.
2. work as a coherent whole end-to-end.
3. include enough variety to keep you going (with softer and more upbeat numbers too).
4. Start in a way to draw you in and end with an epic.
5. Would sound awesome played live.
Those pressures don’t square with today’s world of online streaming and it’s therefore most encouraging to report on British band Donegan’s new album “1st XI”, a true tour de force of an album in the fullest sense of that phrase.
“Donegan” is an eponymous family band: songwriter Thomas sings and plays piano, organ, guitars and synths, with Emmet on guitar, mandolin and vocals and Martin on percussion. The new album and its singles prosper from collaboration with renowned producer Chris Coulter, who recently took Arcane Roots to no. 1 in the UK Indie charts and various other guest musicians credited. Followers of the underground music scene will already have heard “Reminisce” and “Candles” and so will be aware of the broad array of musical influences and genres affecting this band’s music. With melodies and harmonies dominating over bass, the album reflects songwriter Thomas’ classical training and passion for melodic rock music. The variety of musical influences on display here is extraordinary: rock, indie, folk, pop, classical – albeit generally with a piano rock / alt rock vibe. The album in part pitches up somewhere around where Radiohead left things around 1996 and in part somewhere near Billy Joel or Keane.
To kick things off, opening track “Requiem” is an orchestral film-score kind of piece, forewarning us – in this study of love – that “All must fall”. From there, we move to a series of love songs. Donegan’s acclaimed single “Reminisce” deals in the joyful sparks of first love. This catchy, radio-friendly, synth-rock track is simultaneously uplifting, reflective and insistent. “Around the World” is equally catchy, based around broken piano chords and a piercing lead guitar solo. For the album, Coulter remixed Donegan’s debut single from a few years ago, “Waking”. This synth dominated love-song wears its heart firmly on its sleeve – a more passionate and earnest exposition of true love in a happy couple would be hard to find – and may be too much for some. Completing the love-song end of the album’s spectrum, “I wonder” may be its strongest track, a beautifully produced piece featuring more of folk musician Emmet Donegan’s influence than the others, being led by acoustic guitars, mandolin, harmonica and his backing vocals.
From there, things get darker. “Democracy” pitches an anthem on the sad current state of politics, lamenting politicians, whether they stand for remain, leave, war, tax or change (“they’re all just after number one” … “didn’t want it, don’t support it”). This is another classical-piece-turned-synth-rock, with interesting chord modulations and a heavy brass bass-line. This, and the next track, “Television” are metaphors for argument – and add notable variety to the album. The latter is an outspoken critique of the media and another Coulter remix of a little-known previous Donegan b-side. This is quite an audacious track: a waltz piece in three-time (quite unusual for a rock track now or ever) using church organ, strings, a Latin cow bell and bongos, without an electric guitar in sight. And yet, it blew me away as a piece of rock music.
From there, the album turns darker. “Falling” is a synth-dominated break-up song, featuring some impressive chord combinations, key modulations and instrumentation. “Human Behaviour” would sit easily on Blur’s Parklife – satirising a desperado chatting up women in a bar. This story leads into “Candles”, the second single from this album. This dark song tells the story of a difficult conversation after the night out depicted in the previous track, addressing darker themes such as anguish, conflict and regret, with an engaging narrative and symbolism built alongside yearning melodies. Finally, “The End” terminates things quite appropriately with a bombastic rock epic, featuring no less than three simultaneous lead guitar lines, plus bass and two rhythm guitars, as well as a brass section. This reflective break up song is quite more upbeat than “Candles”, reminding us that it is better to have loved and lost, than not to have loved at all.
So what did I not like? Well, the concentration of three love songs at the front-end may be a bit too much for some. And the better tracks are at the end meaning that some might not get there. Secondly, whilst lead singer and songwriter Thomas Donegan’s voice is adequate in terms of having a decent range and having an interesting husky quality to it, it does not compare to some of the great vocal talents that dominate music charts today – and in the post-X Factor world generally – in lacking a bit of depth or feeling and its somewhat nasal quality. This is counter-balanced by musical arrangements which activate all the senses and hit all the wavelengths: like the album’s whole tenet, this is something of a throw-back to times when the music came first and the personalities were secondary.
All in all, this album presents a quite extraordinary musical and narrative journey. Turning to my criteria for a great album: 1. These are 11 great tracks – no duds in sight. 2. They tell an interesting coherent story. A concept album studying love sounds fairly banal and unoriginal even, but this deals in experiences of a whole adult lifetime from the good to the bad in a quite engaging way. 3. Musical variety – be it instruments, genre variation, key modulations, track length, song structure – is extraordinary if not unprecedented – and keeps you wanting to hear the next track without the album ever verging near disinteresting experimentalism. 4. It hooks you in and sends you off: this starts with a film score and ends with a rock anthem featuring one of the best guitar solos I’ve heard. 5. I’d really like to hear these guys live. So, “1st XI” ticks all these boxes for a great album and some.
This album’s tracks were composed over more than 20 years. It’s been a long gestation period, but it’s really been worth the wait!