On this album, the Zydepunks play big, barnstorming dance songs — massive, stomping, thumping, sweaty things with a piratical accordion played by a woman in a miniskirt and black stockings who is known in the publicity as Eve: no surname. If the musicians were performing this music live, then the floorboards would be shaking under the feet of the dancers, every ant in the room would be shooting out of its crevice or crack and running for safer ground. Beverages would fly.
Finisterre hits a good balance between keeping the music boisterous and genuine-sounding, and leaving it clear enough to be intelligible. In that room with its shaking floorboards, the pure amount of sound pouring down on you, around you, up from the floor, might dissolve everything in a slamming roar, but with Finisterre you can focus your mind on each instrument and hear a precision there that submerges itself in the whole. Listen to the fiddle in “When My Ship Sails Away”. It picks out each note with the exactness of an embroidery needle stabbing through canvas. At the end of “One More Chance”, it corkscrews itself neatly into a squeak.
The group formed in New Orleans in 2003 and has been based there ever since. Finisterre is its fourth album after 2004’s 9th Ward Ramblers, 2005’s …And the Streets Will Flow with Whiskey, and last year’s Exile Waltz. Hurricane Katrina disrupted the lineup slightly, but the music doesn’t seem to have suffered. The musicians draw on several different folk traditions for their sound: klezmer here, Cajun there, Irish or English somewhere else. There’s zydeco too, obviously. The easiest thing to compare them to would be the Pogues, but Pogues with a strong New Orleans flavour and a singer who sounds raspy but not drunk. They have that same folk-for-the-hell-of-it vibe. Pub folk. They even sing about whiskey.
They’re a good band, but kept from greatness by their lyrics. “Song for Mike”, a track about a friend who was robbed and killed in 2006, doesn’t have the personal particularities that would give the characters — the narrator, the dead man — lives of their own. The singer “goes cold” when he hears news of the murder. Words “ring empty”. He prays it’s all a lie. The world seems unjust. It’s no doubt heartfelt, but fairly generic. The instruments are more expressive than the words, more subtle, more personal. The fiddles sound sadder than the sentences.
“Dear Molly” is better — we get details of where Molly is, we get locations. The song ends with a promise to have a drink “in the Ninth Ward”. At last we get a sense of place, which is surely essential to folk music, to tribal music of a specific people. The people need to be somewhere. They might be Mick Thomas “under the clocks” at Flinders Street Station, or Shane MacGowan in New York, but they’re somewhere. They’re human beings, with habits, like the man in Paul Kelly’s “How to Make Gravy” who flavours his gravy with a dollop of tomato sauce. This is what “Song for Mike” would benefit from — a detail that would convince us to think of Mike as an ineffable human being, not a crime statistic. It wants a line to match that dollop of tomato sauce.