Billy Mahonie: The Big Dig


By Steve Lichtenstein

One of the problems with the media is their enormous expectations and their intense love of label-slapping. Particularly, look at the British media and what they’ve done to the likes of Oasis, Gomez, and countless other who have followed in the “Second Coming” status that the folks at NME and Melody Maker seems so eager to bestow. But you can’t fault the media—it’s their job. And you can’t fault the bands when they fail to live up to their hype—no one’s perfect. So, forget about fault or accountability, and take the music for what it’s worth.

Ahh, but how can you honestly? Melody Maker has already labeled Billy Mahonie “the best band in Britain,” a title as loosely tossed around as CEO is in the States. Factor into this NME‘s comment that they’re “blistering,” and that The Big Dig is their debut, and you’ve got yourself quite a little media hype to bust through. This being said, who am I, a Yankee, of all things, to gauge whether or not these prophets are accurate or not? I’ll hardly attempt, but will weasel out of all distractions by saying that The Big Dig is a worthy enough record, at worst.

Only problem I have is that Billy Mahonie omits the critic’s or fan’s the one big crutch for reviewing a British rock album—they don’t sing. How can you attack stingy, scrawly vocal patterns when there are none? No bother. The Mahonie foursome’s (guitarist Gavin Baker, bassist/guitarist Hywell Dinsdale, bassist Kevin Penney, and drummer Howard Monk) assault on instrumental rock convention is startling and captivating. It’s hard to sell wordless rock these days unless your name is Medeski, Martin or Wood, or you’re a dead and established jazz great. Sucks, but it’s mostly true. What Billy Mahonie has largely done, is taken the feel of an instrumental Zeppelin or Radiohead interlude, and made it the meat of the album. And whereas the appearance of such tactics in your everyday verse-chorus-verse song may seem overbearing or unnecessary, when it’s the whole of the album, it’s strictly recreational and beneficial. The songs don’t drag, the words don’t (and can’t) confine, and it just feels right. Tunes like “Drago” and “William Derbyshire” are suggestive and playful, not making you long for lyrical melody, but instead creating your own. The Big Dig is as much about what is there as what isn’t. It’s like Pavement if they forgot to sing.

Billy Mahonie is no messiah, at least as I see it. Nonetheless, The Big Dig, with its concise, kinetic energy and raw attack on all things pop and blueprinted, is at least deserving of Movie of the Week or fledgling cult rock status. I’m not really sure what that means, either.

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