Song of the Week: Black River Falls, by Cathal Coughlan

Song of the Week: Black River Falls, by Cathal Coughlan
Ready to quit Black River Falls

Ready to quit Black River Falls

I have made no secret of my favoritism towards Irish performer Cathal Coughlan.  In the 1990s, I bought multiple copies of his band Fatima Mansions’s landmark album Viva Dead Ponies and foisted it on anyone I thought worthy. I subscribed to The Hive newsletter so I could buy obsolete vinyl and have the earliest word on new releases and UK tours that I could never hope to witness. In the early aughts, the record label I co-founded was fortunate enough to be granted US distribution rights to his beautiful 3rd solo record, The Sky’s Awful Blue. I’ve always anxiously awaited new albums, especially now that output – as is natural in the self-funded age of non-commercial music – grows more and more infrequent.

And so it was with great surprise that I happened upon a bootleg recording from September of this year which features in large part many songs from Cathal’s recently-released 5th solo record, Rancho Tetrahedron. Somehow, I’ve managed to fall out of the loop.  I’m slightly ashamed but moreso excited to hear the latest from this eloquent bard of the underground.  What I hear on this boot, I like. Some of it very much. While I anxiously await the arrival of the actual record, I’m gonna jump back a few years and feature one of my top 50 greatest songs of all time.

Black River Falls is the title of CC’s second solo album, though in some ways it was his first proper solo release. The story (briefly summed up here) of the debut Grand Necropolitan and how it came about, created during some Mansions off-time, only to be withdrawn and deleted the second it broke even – as per a pointless stranglehold placed upon him by then-record-label Radioactive – is tragic and offensive to art.  But as art always tends to win in the end, it is my opinion that this very story informs the narrative arc of the title track.

I didn’t reach that conclusion until I had been through Black River Falls myself; on tour, as I expect Cathal was when he first encountered the place. I immediately felt that I understood the allegorical nature of the place. These great desolate areas where we stop to fuel up and attempt to find reasonable eats (no such an easy task if fast food and meat are not on your list of approved comestibles) serve as stark reminders of the lengths to which musicians go in order to bring the so-called message to the world.  When you’re building up a following in your home town or, I expect, in your fairly localized European country, the travel and the momentum are exciting.  Once you’re covering 5,000 miles in three weeks, despite the obvious highs and rewards, every small roadblock can feel like a kidney punch. Every threat of a flu foretells the end of the world. Every condescending call from management feels like a death sentence.

This stirring performance, from the aforementioned bootleg, perfectly conveys why I still retain my eager excitement about the doings of this man, who has been putting out records for over three decades now.  Check it out, study up on his back catalogue, and while it’s very much its own thing.  If you like it, you will love it. And that is the mark of true art.

Black River Falls (live, Sept 7, 2010). Live version removed. Buy the album version on iTunes.

Black