SUNSHINE ON LEITH
I’m not prone to racism, but the first time I got a glimpse of the Proclaimers I indulged in a riot of it. A colleague–one of these pointy-headed, British Simon Frith sociologist types–had said something about a pair of folkie Scotch twins who reminded him of Billy Bragg. Another friend and I were in a club sometime later when a video of the Proclaimers’ first single, “Letter From America,” came on. The identical twins’ brogues were so pronounced as to seem a self-caricature; their geography–they seemed to be talking mostly about Canada–was worse. It’s been a while now, and I haven’t seen the video since, but I remember it being laughably broad and obvious, with lots of shots of the Proclaimers waving from trains and such. My friend had said, “I do believe they’ll be dancing a jig any minute now,” and soon that’s exactly what the pair was doing.
Silly Scots. It wasn’t until later that I heard the Proclaimers’ debut record, This Is the Story. The first lines of the first song went like this: “I’ve been so sad / Since you said my accent was bad.” Called “Throw the ‘R’ Away,” in one sense it’s a love song–the singer has been insulted by an English girl, and agonizes over the distance his brogue puts between them. But the song turns around, as the singer touches on the broader political issues involved (“You say that if I want to get ahead / the language I use should be left for dead / It doesn’t please the ear”) and casually mentions the racist implications: “You just refuse to hear.” The refusal to hear, of course, leaves the singer–and his race–mute. That’s a special hell for a writer:
And I wouldn’t know a single word to say
If I flattened all the vowels
And threw the “R “away
“Throw the ‘R’ Away” is as audacious a debut track as I can remember hearing–it’s about language, racism, nationalism, communication, and rock ‘n’ roll. Musically, it’s a rollicking folk number, complete with wordless shouts and a rousing finale. And This Is the Story, if ultimately uneven as an album, carried on and developed the first song’s themes throughout. “Letter From America,” as it turned out, was a complex, hard-to-gloss song about the reflections of a people watching a tide of emigrants, many of them going to North America–“All the blood that flowed away / Across the ocean to a second chance.” Another song, “Misty Blue,” is confused lyrically, but it’s at least partly about the need to create and communicate whatever the circumstances. And–indeed, like Billy Bragg, who divides his time between love of politics and the politics of love–the Proclaimers do their share of pained love songs; “Make My Heart Fly,” a song of heroic intensity, is one of the high points of the record.
The Proclaimers, I found out, were Charlie and Craig Reid, who grew up in a working-class town above Edinburgh called Auchtermuchty (which I bet is pronounced “ooter-mooty”). Like many their age–they look about 25 now–they got into music through punk and even had a punk band, called improbably enough Black Flag. But the Reids’ roots turn out not to be in punk at all, but in American country and R & B, and of course folk. Obvious reference points for the Proclaimers are Bragg on the one hand, for their thorough politicization and bluntness, and traditional folk practitioners on the other, like the Kingston Trio, from whom one assumes that the Reids got their call-and-response vocals, hootenanny shouts, and occasional dips into an appalling sentimentality.
Sunshine on Leith is the Proclaimers’ second and latest album. It was produced by Pete Wingfield, a sometime recording artist (he had the absurd 1975 hit “Eighteen With a Bullet”) and strong producer and bandleader (for, among others, the Everly Brothers). Where This Is the Story was powered by acoustic guitars and that folk shouting, most of Sunshine on Leith was done with a full band. Wingfield’s challenge was obvious: to preserve the duo’s acoustic integrity while giving the record an 80s sheen. I’m philosophically opposed to such efforts, generally, but Sunshine on Leith is a magnificent record. What often happens in such cases is that the artist gets overwhelmed; and on the first cut, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” when those studio drums kick in, your heart just sinks. But when the Reids start hollering the chorus, you reflect that then again, the studio hadn’t met the Proclaimers before. There ends up being no contest.
It is apparently Craig who is the lead singer; his voice–retained Rs, unflattened vowels, and all–is simply transcendent. In “Sean” he hits a note that will stop you in your tracks, and on the title song, sort of a cross between a hymn and an Eagles tune, the dumbest lyrics the pair have yet penned become a thing of beauty. Behind, around, beneath, and above him flits Charlie, whose voice seems to have a greater range–from a clean falsetto to a heavy deep bass–and more character, but it lacks Craig’s ineffability. Together the two do amazing things. The concluding choruses to “Throw the ‘R’ Away” are thrilling; on the new record, the shouting on “I’m Gonna Be” and the spine-tingling paroxysms that make up the last two minutes of “Oh Jean” go even further.
Sunshine on Leith is almost flawless. This Is the Story was engaging and charming, and even sharp in places; but it’s uneven, and side two is mostly a waste. On Sunshine on Leith the twins don’t miss. Their thoughts on Scottish nationalism are more focused, for one. Here, “Cap in Hand” and “What Do You Do?” are both strong. The first, if it lacks the brutal wit of the Housemartins’ “The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death,” at least shows a sense of umbrage; the second is calm and reflective and fatalistic: “What do you do / When democracy falls you? / What do you do / When minority means you?”
From what I’ve read I gather that for the most part the Reids write separately. The songs reflect this, I think–one brother has a sharp-tongued and almost randy attitude; the other displays a gentle, more sentimental, religiosity. (Besides fierce politics and bravura songwriting, the Proclaimers share with the Housemartins a matter-of-fact belief in God.) On the secular front we have “Come On Nature,” a pantheistic plea for some down-to-earth love action, and “Oh Jean” (“You let me get lucky with you”), with its orgasmic finish. On the heavenly front, however, are the record’s chancier and odder moments.
The song “Sunshine on Leith” genuinely reaches. On paper it’s a slovenly piece of work–and the Reids even print the words: “My tears are drying, my tears are drying / Thankyou Thankyou Thankyou.” At the end it becomes clear that Leith is the pair’s birthplace, and the song is a standard “I’m in love and happy to ever have been born” tearjerker. The strange thing is that it works, and in an enveloping, stirring way: the lilt in the brothers’ voices as they utter the title words is a gorgeous thing to hear.
“Sunshine on Leith” is of a piece with another grateful-to-God song, this one about a birth. “Sean” starts out sounding almost like a drinking song, and suggests a little braggadocio: “Sean I’d say the best one came from Tupelo, Mississippi / I’ll tell you now that grown men cry and Irish girls are pretty.” When you realize that this falls into the category of thoughts about life passed on to a newborn, it’s a bit puzzling until you remember that Elvis Presley came from Tupelo–East Tupelo, actually (and had, incidentally, a twin brother who died at birth). That’s why I like the Proclaimers–they believe in God and Elvis.
The rest of Sunshine on Leith is almost as good, and as a bonus you get a sterling cover of Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues.” I saw the Proclaimers live a month or so ago–I thought they blew the roof off Cabaret Metro. They’re going to be big stars real soon, though it would help if stations like WXRT would loosen up and put them on the playlist. Sunshine on Leith is as good a record as I’ve heard this year.