On the not insignificant matter of We Cut Corners and their formidable brand of alchemy, They Do It With Mirrors, a long-lost Limerick band and bit players in the parable of Setanta Records, have had far more influence than you’d imagine.
Myself and The Mirrors’ go back through the decades and I remember well when they moved across to London and joined our small roster at the London-based label during the early months of 1992. I’d made the same move months previously myself, outwardly so that I could work with The Frank And Walters but ostensibly marking the hours with my friend, Keith Cullen, as a general dogsbody at a label cut in the spirit of the likes of Creation Records, Rough Trade and Stiff. But while we’d all left Ireland with the dreamiest of intentions and big ambitions, it wasn’t long before myself and The Mirrors had bailed over-board. Penniless, directionless and just basically lost in the mire around Camberwell, Bound’s Green, Forest Gate and Tottenham, we just weren’t durable enough ;- London killed us.
It took a while for all of us to get on, I think, and I’m not sure we really did get on until we’d left the cramped squat in the council block at Rumball House in South London that was home to the Setanta label during it’s formative, and maybe happiest years. In many respects, The Mirrors – who were easily the most angular band we had – simply found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, and through absolutely no fault of theirs. With The Frank And Walters high-tailing it into their pomp, A House burning up the ground behind them at the second time of asking and The Divine Comedy, now camped in a tree-house studio in Enniskillen and about to wholly over-haul themselves, The Mirrors were always going to struggle to be heard in that sort of company, irrespective of how good they were. And they were very good. But with the label’s eyes, in reality, on the bottom line, mid-week chart positions, marketing plans and tour supports, a natural order always emerges and, far from the theory, you invariably tend to play with the wind in both halves, filling your boots as quickly as you can. Its where life at the major and independent labels coalesce and, in that respect, Setanta was indeed following tradition, even if the public face said otherwise.
The Mirrors were one of a number of whip-smart, edgy guitar bands to emerge from Limerick as the eighties bled into the nineties, of which The Cranberries became the best known and most commercially successful. But to some of us, Those Stilted Boys, The Hitchers and indeed They Do It With Mirrors themselves were just as attractive, if not more so, and I’ve touched on this in a previous post, which is available to read here. The Mirrors certainly had more side to them than any of their peers and, with sharp words spread over their slanted Pixies shtick, were a sinewy proposition from the get-go. A fact not lost on Keith Cullen who, having been spurned in his pursuit of The Cranberries, quickly added The Mirrors to the Setanta slate instead. But that their best and most full-bodied work – four cracking tracks we worked on together during a terrific week-long session in Xeric Studios in Limerick – remains unreleased, tells it’s own story.
The Mirrors were still finding their sea-legs when we’d released the first of two, forked four-track EPs with them, ‘Ox’ and ‘The Last Real Baby’ but, try as we did – and given all that was going on around us – we just couldn’t generate them any traction. And so, as frustrated with the label as the label became with the band – a common occurrence with every act, eventually – the band returned home where, shortly afterwards, the arse fell out from under them. The Mirrors were mature and intelligent enough to know that they’d run out of road and, unlike some of the others on the label, had enough sass to re-invent themselves elsewhere. They always seemed to have an awful lot going on anyway which, in retrospect, may have contributed to their undoing. One of them works now as a political scientist in Washington and another designs sound for theatre, television, art and film. And that’s the kind of band they were, with that sort of a compass.
By the early part of 2005, Kevin Brew, The Mirrors’ frontman and singer and myself were both working as producers in RTÉ, him looking after one of the better arts series on Radio One and I, following the birth of our first daughter, assigned back to a mercy posting in television, on a Saturday morning kids’ series called ‘Sattitude’. I’d see Kevin off in the distance around the campus and on the approach roads into Montrose, invariably with his ear-phones on, often pushing a bicycle. And we’d stop the odd time and gently remind ourselves of just how lucky we were to escape the carnage down in Camberwell years previously. And then I’d tell Kevin about the joys of fatherhood and talk around in circles for a bit, convincing myself that all of our lives had been turned upside down, and all for the better.
Because he’d clearly been let down at the last minute by someone far more informed than I – though arguably nowhere near as cynical or as arrogant – Kevin invited me over to the Radio Centre one afternoon to join one of the review panels on the radio series. The instruction was simple enough :- I was to sit with two others and assess the strengths and weaknesses of a handful of keen, young acts who were going to perform fully live within the walls of one of the bigger studios, under the glare of the of the host, Myles Dungan, a formidable operator with a fine, enquiring mind and a broad frame of rock music reference. It was like The X Factor with ugly judges, if you like.
In terms of music criticism, I’d long been in cold storage, a palsied old whore in retirement. RTÉ had discontinued the No Disco series a couple of years previously and one of my last meaningful acts in respect of supporting music on radio or television was to sign an on-line petition calling for it’s retention. It had been years since I’d worked directly with music and, instead, had completed two years in charge of the fashion magazine series, Off The Rails, much to the amusement of my male friends. And, it should be said, my female friends too. But with a new-born daughter at home and, with a head full of steam and re-calibrated priorities, the prospect of contributing to an afternoon arts programme for a stray thirty minutes felt like a free pass to the most inviting stag weekend of all time. And I’ll be grateful forever that I jumped on it.
I’m certain that Conall and John’s primary consideration on the day was to start their number as they’d planned and to complete it without falling off of the unwelcoming, hard-backed chairs on which they’d been propped. Trading as Little Red River, they were as nervous and timid as you’d expect but far too good to allow any of that to affect them unduly. I have no idea where Kevin Brew found them, or how, but they were an inspired booking. They buried themselves behind their acoustic guitars while Myles introduced them as a band that had only recently come together ;- it would be wrong to say that, even by then, that they were in any way formed. But it wasn’t as if you’d have noticed and they had me from that moment that Conall opened his mouth ;- they were truly magnificent.
I loved them so much so quickly that I invited them back into RTÉ some weeks later and had them record another couple of tracks for the children’s television series I was minding. It was utterly inappropriate stuff for our target audience, of course, but I just squared that argument on the grounds that I was a] practically utilising studio down-time and b] doing the country a public service. And so, somewhere in the sprawling RTÉ television archives is a young, tentative Little Red River session that, full of raw, untapped promise, hints at exactly what We Cut Corners have become. Conall and John have told me subsequently that they barely had enough songs written at that stage to complete even a proper sample tape and that, had those calls from RTÉ not come when they did, they’d probably have jacked in the idea of writing and performing altogether. If I had my way, I’d be using that line as part of the public awareness campaign about the licence fee.
Much has happened in the dozen years since and, as of today, We Cut Corners are the proud owners of three terrific albums. Conall and his wife now have a young daughter of their own and, in parallel as always with their music, they’ve stayed immutable about their first careers ;- they’re both primary school teachers who first met as students in Saint Patrick’s College, where their current album was recorded. They rehearse and record as their work and domestic schedules allow, tour during breaks in the academic calendar and, in so many ways, are easily the most interesting and, in my view, best Irish band of the last decade. And, on ‘The Cadences Of Others’, they once again support that thesis ; it is, unquestionably a contender for the country’s best long player of 2016.
But it’s been slowly coming to this for a while now and ‘Cadences’ just continues the driving maul that’s gathered pace and form since the band’s debut album, ‘Today I Realised I Could Go Home Backwards’  and 2014’s follow-up, ‘Think Nothing’. To the point where now their broad span of reference – they do layered indie fanfare side-by-side with Loudon Wainwright-style hush or even Emmylou Harris at her most lateral – just sounds so seamlessly finished. And, in that sense, especially on the urgent ‘Milk Teeth’ or the beautifully-sculpted ‘Sound’ [for me, a real stand-out among stand-outs], they could have easily taken the baton from, of all places, later-period They Do It With Mirrors. Whoever would have thought ?
Far too many bands searching to escape self-imposed snookers revert to string arrangements to lift the gloom and mask more fundamental deficiencies ;- it’s almost a rite of passage by now. And in lesser hands, the quintet added from the off on ‘Cadences’ could have taken We Cut Corners spectacularly off-piste. But, with typical restraint – a defining trait across all three of the band’s albums – the additional players here been clearly instructed and understand their purpose when they could easily just have just dominated the fray, especially on the softer numbers. And never more so than on the imperious single, ‘Oh’ which, in terms of it’s architecture and lyrical intent calls to mind Blur’s magnificent ‘Tender’ or Elbow at their creative peak.
One of the early reviews claimed, bizarrely in my book, that ‘Cadence’s second half lacks lustre. And while there’s no accounting for taste or the vagaries of criticism, to these ears at least, the closing five tracks – or, in old money, Side Two [‘Reluctant Recluse’, ‘Blood Vessels’, ‘Sound’, ‘Traffic Island’ and ‘The End Has Already Happened’] not only twinkle like no other carnet of songs on an Irish release this year, but may well be one of the most compelling back-to-back clusters heard on any record this last twelve months. Aided down the home straight, it should be said, by John Duignan’s clever word-plays, star-crossed couplets and charming tropes – many of them rooted in the language of science and physics – that marks him out as a lyricist as seductive and ambitious as either Costello or early-period Roddy Frame.
And nowhere more than on the magnificently flighty ‘Reluctant Recluse’ where he offers the line – ‘I was a reckless child. Now I’m a childless wreck’ – where, by so doing, raises the stakes considerably for all-comers from here on in.
So, twelve years on and, once again, they’ve hooked me from early. Three tracks in, I closed my eyes during the exquisite ‘Of Whatever’ and, fleetingly, thought I was hearing Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Highwayman’ for the first time. They’re that kind of band and ‘Cadences’ is that kind of album.