Larry Love’s voice is an extraordinary thing. It’s a Tom Waits-esque, forty-a-day growl of a voice, the kind of voice that crunches like gravel underfoot. He sings like his teeth hurt. If there’s one thing that Minesweeper proves, it’s that O’Connell & Love know the power of that kind of voice.
From the very first track, Love’s vocals are left to steal the show, stripped-down and snarling over an unfussy folk melody. ‘Like a Wave Breaks on a Rock’ is a deliciously grimy opener, all world-weary lyrics and spatterings of vaguely Christian imagery – the kind of thing that’s destined to end up on the soundtrack to the next big gritty crime drama to come out of America.
The excellent lyrics in this opening track set the standard for the rest of the album. There’s some lovely poetic touches to be found throughout, such as the nod to Stevie Smith in ‘Where the Silence Meets the Sea’: ‘We ain’t drowning/ We’re just waving’. Another great thing about Love’s voice is that even when lyrics veer towards saccharine in the likes of ‘Call a Cab Cinderella’, he simply can’t sing anything without giving it gravitas.
Even at is most upbeat, there’s a weary, gritty quality to the album, the best example being the single Hangover Me, a lovely duet with the honey-voiced Rumer. For all its major chords and chirpy melodies, this is a pessimistic, unromanticised love story, all about taking comfort in a fleeting moment of companionship before the struggle of life goes on.
It’s a fair criticism that a lot of the album’s strong points are the kind of thing that have been heard before; but this isn’t necessarily a negative. There’s a timeless quality to the likes of ‘Shake off Your Shoes’, which echoes of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bookends’ in its guitar melody. Larry Love certainly isn’t afraid to go full Tom Waits when appropriate: ‘Come on Boy’s contrast of sandpaper vocals and stripped down piano melody could be straight off of Closing Time. It’s a formula, but it’s a formula that works.
There’s a couple of tracks that the album really does stumble over. Up-tempo-ish numbers like ‘Love is Like a Rollin Stone’ have a clumsy indie-rock vibe that simply doesn’t sit well with the rest of the album. At these low points, O’Connell & Love start to stray dangerously close to middle-aged-band-at-a-wedding territory. They get caught up trying to over-decorate things more than once, particularly in the final track ‘Minesweeping’, where the combination of sampled gramophone and a bizarre Pete Docherty cameo overshadow what is otherwise just a nice little song.
This is a band at its best at its most simple: at its grittiest and grimiest. There’s an old-timey, classic quality to the best parts of this album that make it the perfect background music to hard liquor and solitude. If you can forgive a few missteps for gorgeous lyrics and captivating lead vocals, there’s something genuinely special to be found here.
‘Minesweeping’ is out now on Mountmellick Music. The full track-listing for the album is as follows…
‘Like a Wave Breaks on a Rock’
‘Call a Cab, Cinderella’
‘It Was the Sweetest Thing’
‘Goodbye to Mr Blue Sky’
‘Shake off Your Shoes’
‘If It’s Not Broken’
‘Come on, Boy’
‘Love Is Like a Rolling Stone’
‘Where Silence Meets the Sea’
‘The Man Inside the Iron Mask’