Friday, 20 June 2014

"Born With the Caul" - Cian Nugent and the Cosmos

Cian Nugent's Born With the Caul is very much a slow burn. It takes its time to deliver but deliver it surely does. Released at the end of 2013, I first heard it about 6 months ago and it didn't really hit. But after regular playings it has grown on me and I now reckon it's one of the great psychedelic guitar rock albums of recent years. Nugent's group is aptly named as their music is good old fashioned cosmic music - the psychedelia of the the desert, the night and wide open spaces. After careful listening it reveals itself to be well in the tradition of the Pink Floyd at their spaciest and the Grateful Dead at their most freewheeling.

24 year-old Cian Nugent hails from Dublin and has been playing solo acoustic folk guitar for a few years now. He also plugs in with his electric band, the Cosmos, who include Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh on electric viola, Conor Lumsden on bass, Brendan Jenkinson on organ and David Lacey on drums. Their sound is a mixture of Celtic folk, jazz and psychedelic rock. They've recently been on tour with Ryley Walker (a perfect double bill if ever there was one). Nugent has recorded before but Born With the Caul is this line-up's first release.

The album references acoustic blues and late 60s psychedelia - especially early Doors, the Grateful Dead, the Pink Floyd, early 70s Fairport Convention and John Cale era Velvet Underground. However this is an album that very much stands on its own two feet. This is not a nostalgic revival. The music here sounds fresh and very much alive.

A 3 track album clocking in at 45 minutes - nice LP length - Born With the Caul slowly navigates its way towards its thunderous and triumphant finale. Opening acoustic track Grass Above My Head starts off sounding like a lament but soon morphs into a kind of Irish folk version of a New Orleans style funeral celebration. The acoustic intro on Double Horse seems to pick up from the previous track's motif but quickly leads in to a droning eastern style raga sound. Given the previous cut's theme, is this some kind of meditation on the hereafter? Nugent spins a couple of riffs that bring to mind Robbie Kreiger's intro on The Doors' The End. The keyboards also give it the eerie atmosphere of early Doors. This is classic desert heat haze psychedelia. Indian territory. Ominous and strange. The ghost of Jim Morrison lurks and we get a hint of danger on the edge of town. Of course this is a terrain also explored by the Grateful Dead on Dark Star and by the Quicksilver Messenger Service on The Fool or especially side 2 of Happy Trails but this is also rich prospecting territory and Nugent's band convincingly stake their own claim.

The mood is enhanced by Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh's viola accompaniment which blends with Nugent's guitar without getting in the way of it. Some people have compared this album to Fairport Convention for its use of guitar and viola but I'm not really hearing that. If anything, it's more like John Cale's restrained use of viola in the Velvet Underground. Think of Cale's droning contribution to Venus in Furs and you get an idea of what a rich strange mix this is. The rhythm section is also excellent. David Lacey's jazzy drums are superb throughout. Towards the end Nugent's guitar takes on an angular repetitive riff similar to something Jerry Garcia might have come up with around 1969. The Grateful Dead references are quite apt. This ranks alongside some of the Dead's finest improvised work-outs from the late 60s.

Final track Houses of Parliament is the big one. It starts off rewinding back into the desert heat haze of the previous piece but then suddenly morphs into something far more Floydian. Built up from smaller pieces in to a larger whole it has the scope of the Floyd at their finest. Nugent also plays with the same subtle economy that David Gilmour had - there is no noodling here. We soon head into a relaxed funk riff reminiscent of the mid section in the Floyd's Echoes but David Lacey's drums add a jazzy groove that the Floyd never really managed. An abrupt tempo change and the band drives helter skelter towards the song's finale with unbridled punk energy and panache. Finally Nugent kicks in spinning a riff reminiscent of the Grateful Dead's China Cat Sunflower. It sounds triumphant. A joyous homecoming.

This is an album that has a clean live feel. The band actually sound like they recorded it live in the studio with few overdubs and very little in the way of effects. It is also an an old-fashioned "album" in the sense that it is best listened to as a complete whole. This is not designed to be divided up and downloaded in marketable bite form. It's a superb work worthy of its influences and which very much continues their spirit. Give it your time. Slow burner it may be but when it hits you'll be richly rewarded.

The preview below doesn't really do the album justice. It is, as I say, best experienced as a complete album. But if you really want a sonic idea...

More stranger than known
Celestial Voices - The Pink Floyd live at the Paradiso, Amsterdam 1969

Parallax - The Pink Floyd BBC Sessions

Fairport Convention Bouton Rouge Sessions 

Freak Out! In praise of Improv

The Grateful Dead - 1969 Dark Star set to vintage film ...

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