What is my obsession with music? I own over 1,000 albums, by about 700 artists. I gather music more quickly than I listen to it, and end up months later, finding albums I never knew I had. I find an album I really like, listen to it a couple of times, and soon it is lost into the pile, to be rediscovered months later. Or, conversely, I listen to the best albums in my collection too much, until I am sick of that album, for months and months to come. Why do I do this? When is enough enough? When will I stop collecting music? Never, I guess is the answer to that. I now have too many “favourite” artists to keep track of, and am pleasantly surprised when I wander into a music shop to find out one of my favourites has a new album out – on Saturday, it was the turn of The National, with their second full-length album Alligator (which, by the way, was my favourite album of 2005 to date…at least until I listened to it too much…)

I guess I am searching for the perfect song, and the perfect album. I’ve come close – Third Eye Blind’s eponymous debut album to me is as close to perfect as possible – a collection of songs, all very different, but all familiar as by T3B, and an album I can still listen to now, 7 years after buying it. The perfect song? Well, I’m still looking. I’m sure it’s a classic, somewhere out there – Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac. But the closest was Howie Day’s “Collide” (from “Stop All The World” (2003)) – at a time when I had met a special girl, I heard this song, and the lyrics so perfectly matched how I felt, that it struck a chord.But I feel the search will always continue – sure, there are my favourite songs (“Mr. Brightside”, “Hey Yeah”, “Dancing in the Dark”, “Born to Run”, “Directions”, “I Grieve”), and my favourite albums (Ryan Adams “Gold”, the Frames “Dance the Devil”, Goo Goo Dolls “Dizzy Up The Girl”, Jesse Malin “Fine Art of Self Destruction”, Tom McRae “Just Like Blood”, Bruce Springsteen “Ghost of Tom Joad”)…but the perfect one?

It’s out there somewhere…

Despite the unsubstantiated rumours going around that Rufus Wainwright would be supported by his singing sibling, Martha, it was a small, slightly scruffy man that took the stage in front of us, in Vicar Street on the 26th October 2004. Introducing himself as Ollie Cole, from the Dublin band Turn, he proceeded to give an impromptu 7 song set – impromptu in that not only did Cole do requests, and occasionally forgot the words to the songs, but also managed to check his text messages (and reply) between songs.
Not detracting from the music in any way (which was very good, moving from Turn staples such as “In Position” and “Forward”, to a beautiful cover of Elliot Smith’s “Angeles”, before finally ending on Loudon Wainwright III’s “One Man Guy” – and of course apologising to Rufus for stealing his father’s song), you couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed at Cole’s lack of organisation at times. Perhaps the result of a late phone call looking for Cole as a support act?

Who knows?

Wainwright himself began on a dubious note – singing “Grey Gardens” from his second album, Poses, he looked distinctly uncomfortable wrapped in a green scarf, and signalling for something to drink several times. However, removing the scarf, and launching into “Pretty Things” from his latest, Want One, we got to see the Rufus that we know – utterly unique – an operatically trained voice, singing ballads and up-tempo songs with equal gusto. His albums contain lush melodies and musical landscapes, so it was an amazing sight to see Wainwright manage to convey the same power in his songs with just a piano or a guitar, depending on his mood.
Wainwright mixed songs from Poses, Want One, and the upcoming Want Two, swapping between piano and guitar every 5 songs or so – from the humour of “Gay Messiah” to the sad longing of “11.11”, Wainwright mixed music with humour – showing us his new pants, he talked about the New Ireland – “Liberated, Diverse…Expensive!”

The 1st major highlight of the show appeared halfway in. Singing the amazing “Vibrate”, accompanying himself on the piano, Wainwright held notes like the audience held its breath – seemingly for minutes at a time. Then Wainwright moved into his longest monologue, discussing his history with Jeff Buckley: how he wasn’t allowed in to Sin E in New York to see Buckley play, and hated him for it, until Rufus met him just a few weeks before Buckley’s tragic death, and spent an evening with this man that he would now never forget. This monologue segued into a beautiful song, “Memphis Skyline”, describing one singer finding another dead, before segueing further, into Leonard Coen’s “Hallelujah” – a song Buckley made his own.

Despite the loveliness of Wainwright’s version, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling disappointed that, as often happens, a cover of a famous song overshadows the current singers set. People gasped and applauded as “Hallelujah” rang out, but it’s a pity that Wainwright’s set didn’t garner this sort of reaction, when it really deserved to.

As the set unfolded, moving through “Matinee Idol” and “Want” (with Wainwright conjecturing about not wanting to “be John Lennon, or Leonard Cohen, just want to be my dad”), you could feel change in the room – people were realising how special this talent is. People were as rapt as I’ve seen, while Wainwright himself was utterly lost in the music – you felt that he could have been playing to an audience of 5, rather than a nearly-full Vicar Street, and still inject the same emotion into every song.

The stunning “Art Teacher”, again, off the upcoming Want Two, was another highlight, with its description of a young woman imagining that her art teacher is the most beautiful thing in the museum that they are visiting.

The set finished on a beautiful double header – two songs, one each for his mother (“”Beauty Mark”, discussing her influences on him during his life “But I do have your tastes / I never had it, I never wanted it, I never had your Beauty Mark”) and his father (“Dinner At 8″). Wainwright’s parents are both themselves world-renowned singers and these two songs dealt with acknowledging his mother’s ideas and influences, and his mixed fear, love and appreciation for his father, alternatively. “Dinner at 8″, especially, may be Wainwright’s most autobiographical song: “But ’til then no, Daddy, don’t be surprised, If I wanna see the tears in your eyes/I’m gonna break you down And see what you’re worth, What you’re really worth to me”.

An encore followed, of “Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk” (a song dedicated to loving what’s harmful to him – an interesting choice for a man fresh out of rehab); an a capella “A Little Irish Ditty”; before finishing on “Poses”, with its lyrics dealing again with the shallowness of life (“Life is a game and true love is a trophy, And you said, Watch my head about it”).
Walking away, you feel Wainwright managed to gain himself more than a few new converts to his very special type of music. Despite the absence of personal favourites such as “14th Street” and “Movies of Myself”, Wainwright managed to convert the multi-layered songs of his albums, to a piano or guitar simplification accompanied by the richest voice in the business today.
Coming from a musical family with a history such as his has, you couldn’t help but smile and think that Mum and Dad would be proud.

The National, hailing from Ohio in the USA, have just released their first mini-album in Ireland, “Cherry Tree”.

Comprising 6 new songs, and a live version of “Murder Me Rachel” from their previous album release, the National are comparable to many bands currently in the public eye – Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, the Killers.

But before you go out and buy this album in the hopes of discovering this years “Take Me Out” before all your friends do, be warned – this is not the art-house pop-rock favoured by Misters Ferdinand…this is dirty, depressed, drunken music; fantastic in its utter despair at times, with the occasional lighter moment. And it’s bloody good.

Kicking off with the acoustic-led “Wasp’s Nest”, lead singer Matt Berninger’s deep voice reminds you of Tom Waits sitting at a bar-room piano, with Nick Cave accompanying him. The song, with a slightly upbeat tempo, deals with a man who KNOWS he’s in a bad relationship – “You’re a wasp’s nest, your eyes are broken bottles, and I’m afraid to ask/you’re poison in a pretty glass” – but cannot leave – “Get over here, I wanna kiss your skinny throat”.

“All the Wine” deals with that wonderful situation we all feel from time to time – out on the town, drink and/or drugs flowing through you, money in your back pocket, and the world at your feet – “I’m put together beautifully/I’m a perfect piece of ass/So tall I take over the street/I’m a festival, I’m a parade”.

Highlight of the album has to be the low-burning “About Today”. Dealing with that split-second at the end of a relationship when you know it’s over; when you realise there’s no going back; when it dawns on you that the person across from you will be leaving your life…never has 4 minutes and 10 seconds so perfectly described a moment – “Today, you were far away/What could I say, I was far away”. Over a violin, an incessant drum beat, and a low guitar strum, Berninger’s low baritone invokes utter resignation – “How close am I, to losing you? Tonight/Are you awake? Yeah, I’m right here”

“All Dolled Up In Straps” deals with the moment you see an ex-lover with someone else for the first time, and describes that sudden unexplained, and unnecessary, rush of anger you feel. “My head plays it over and over, I think I heard you singing/Where have you been?”

The live version of “Murder Me Rachel” fits perfectly in with the tone of the album, as it deals with the same subject matter as “All Dolled…” – “I saw my love with pretty boy”. Recorded live in France, the song breaks up the downbeat acoustic songs of the last half of the album by providing a loud drum- & electric guitar-driven intermission.

An excellent introduction to a group of guys who know what heartache is. Although slightly weaker in the second half of the album, that doesn’t matter when 5 out of the 7 songs are eminently listenable. Some beautifully-crafted melodies, the only word of warning is not to concentrate on the lyrics too much if you’re listening to this with your partner present – they may feel you’re trying to tell them something.