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Irish bands that have tried to steer Celtic rock into the collective pop consciousness have a rather spotty record. Dexy's Midnight Runners spiked in the early 1980s, when Kevin Rowland retooled his sound and scored a hit in North America with the fresh-sounding "Come On Eileen," only to see his fame wither away when he couldn't write another hot single. In 1989 Ireland's Hothouse Flowers were going to be the next U2, according to the band's press agent. Anybody remember them? The punkish Pogues certainly had the longest run of the three, and were on every critic's Best Albums of 1988 list with If I Should Fall from Grace with God, a title that eerily foreshadowed vocalist Shane MacGowan's drug-induced breakdown. Flash forward a decade or so, and the first thing on the minds of the Young Dubliners' band members is that they're destined to be yet another answer to a Celtic rock band trivia question.
Reviews of the band's club shows, especially in L.A., its home base, have been wildly enthusiastic, priming the band to break out nationally with the release of Red, its second studio album. Certainly the Dubliners isn't your typical can't-get-radio-play independent, considering it has financial backing from a beer conglomerate and Bernie Taupin (of Elton John fame), who champions the cause here by penning lyrics to the title track. Singer Keith Roberts has a compelling voice, which at times is a dead-on knock-off of Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, but half the time, his deliveries are confounding. In the song "Rising/Change the World," he tries to convey a message about apathy but misses the mark in the context of a cheerful, bouncy beat. Still, the musicianship and Roberts's voice are killer.
The mix of Irish-born and American musicians in the six-piece band creates a hybrid that doesn't try to jam fiddles and tin whistles into rock and roll crevices where they simply don't belong. Ascending- and descending-scale melody lines are blended with real craftsmanship, and the harmonies pack a punch. Multi-instrumentalist Mark Epting has the juiciest chops and can yank a rhythm along when he picks up the fiddle, as he does in the pile-driving cut "What Do You Want from Me?" which could have ended up on a Bad Religion record.
The Young Dubliners reach their best moment on "One and Only," the tale of a young girl's experience with sexual abuse. Here, Roberts nails it. The creepy vibe in his voice matches the ebb and flow of the song (riding Epting's haunting fiddle lines), which builds to a climax with a fiery guitar solo from Bob Bouldings. When the band is stretching out, the sounds demand your attention. At other times, it fails to register, kind of like the taste of that fifth pint of Guinness, when your brain has gone numb. Perhaps the best solution is to plunk down your hard-earned bucks to see the band rock out in a small venue, then make up your mind if you want the Young Dubliners to occupy a more permanent space in your life -- or at least in your CD changer.