albums, music

The Shadow of (More Than) an Empire

‘Violent Demeanour’, the fifth track on Fionn Regan’s second album, The Shadow of an Empire, begins with a keening vocal and gently plucked strings. It’s a sound fans of Regan’s first record, 2006’s The End of History, will know well: rustic, quirky, plangent. But the song lives up to its title, and quickly boils over as an an angry, insistent march, complete with stabs of electric guitar and stacatto drums. Regan’s old sound weaves in and out – there are, to quote the song’s lyrics in one such spot, pennies on its eyes – but its defining character marks the end of The End of History.

Over at Colour, Matt was excited by the release of The Shadow of an Empire, and I’d be interested in what he thinks now he’s had chance to listen to it. Matt rightly points to Regan’s humour and eloquence, and in addition his tartness – even bitterness – is fully on display on this record, too. But it’s also harder to see his individual self, I think. This is because, and I am confident this isn’t my own interests showing through, at times the record feels like an embarassingly conscious Bob Dylan tribute album. Opener ‘Protection Racket’ takes all of 13 words to quote Dylan lyrically (‘I’ll strike a match’), but musically it’s Highway 61 Revisited from the off. The guitar on ‘House Detective’ could see Mike Bloomfield sue were he not in a better place; and the title track itself is as close to an attempt to rewrite ‘Desolation Row’ for the milennial generation as you you have any right to expect.

Dylan isn’t, to be sure, the only influence – there’s, er, Leonard Cohen, too (particularly in terms of vocal delivery). And, yes, the album is a clear attempt to claim some of the territory currently occupied by safely raucous indie bands like The Pigeon Detectives (‘Coat Hook’, ‘Genocide Matinee’) – it should see him get more radio play, and Regan richly deserves success. But it’s a shame that The Shadow of an Empire feels so indebted to its forebears, since it has such interesting ways of saying things: “The element heats the air / Yet it’s still damp, cold and bare / You must wear another layer / In The shadow of an empire,” he sings wryly, and if at times he takes his Dylanesque raging against the machine too far – “These big companies are giving us the squeeze / Let’s raise our glasses to Mr Onassis” – he is more often clever and careful.

All this puts me closer to Drowned in Sound’s take on the record than most of the main newspapers: The Shadow of an Empire is a solid album which is fun to listen to, but which is let down by Regan’s difficulty in making his influences his own. I’ve no doubt I’ll keep sticking this in the CD player for the rest of the year; but if we could have more songs like the serpentine, arch, and opaque ‘Lord Help My Poor Soul’, and fewer Dylan pastiches, I’d be happier. Don’t all gasp at once.

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