Forgive me if I’m pointing out the obvious but there might be some people who don’t know (my mum for instance, who reads this blog), Joe McMahon is the singer and guitarist of the mighty Smoke or Fire. He is also a prolific solo artist in his own right, playing a more folk-influenced style of music to that of his band. Next week he releases a new album, Another Life, on Gunner Records (Europe) and Smartpunk (North America) and I got to take an early listen.
The first track on Another Life, It All Went Black, is all the things a good album opener should be – it’s upbeat and maybe just a little bit poppy. Lyrically the song is actually sort of pessimistic but Joe manages to pull it off without actually sounding too negative. There’s a distinct ‘what will be, will be’ attitude and it’s great. ‘True love, there ain’t no such thing. Because being true, is impossible to be. And the world we live, So walk on and be free.’
Yesterday is an instant hit with me as it has harmonica right from the start – and I’m a sucker for a bit of harmonica. Harmonica aside, Yesterday is the perfect folk rock song with plenty to get your feet stomping. Lyrically it’s a love song about wanting to start over and take a relationship back to how it used to be – before things changed. ‘Oh my darling what have you done, Yesterday I was the lucky one. You gave me everything then took it away, I just wish we could go back to the start. Come back to my heart.’ The song also features some lovely female vocal harmonies from Lucinda Legaspi.
Next up is the title track, Another Life. This song has a slightly slower pace than the previous two which allows the listener to really take in the lyrics. Joe McMahon is a very talented lyricist, as well as musician. I find myself visualising the stories of his songs in my head – particularly with this one. It’s a very heartfelt, emotional track and I was left hanging on every word. ‘Would you do it all over again if you knew that your heart would break, Did you live your life through someone else, Go it alone to play it safe.’
Canadian Graffiti picks up the pace again and begins with a much more folky Americana style sound – I think there’s some slide guitar or it might just be normal guitar with certain effects (I’m no expert!). I couldn’t stop nodding my head along to this track and it has one of the catchiest choruses of the whole album. ‘Hey, Don’t cry, Don’t miss me, Don’t write. We were only making records, We were only making records. She said hey, Don’t fight, Don’t kiss me, Goodbye. We were only making records, We were only making records, We were only making records, And killing time.’ Definitely one of my favourite tracks. It also has a great guitar solo – what more could you want?
If Canadian Graffiti was an Americana-influence track, Chained To Ghosts is definitely a bit more of a hardcore punk influenced track – particularly within the first 20 seconds of pounding drums and thundering guitars. In fact, the first thing that came to my mind when I heard Chained To Ghosts was ‘Hot Water Music’. Well, hey, guess what? Chris Wollard actually plays guitar and sings some backing vocals on the song (which I found out after I made the connection, by the way!). It’s great that at only five tracks in there are already lots of different sounds going on.
Time Won’t Heal picks up where the previous song left off. Although the melody is different and the tempo is slower, it sort of feels like the second calmer half of Chained To Ghosts, with the lyrics ‘You get so alone’ echoed as backing vocals. This is far more of a piano-heavy track than any of the other songs so far and, as the middle track of the album, it definitely feels like the end of part one (or Side A on the vinyl release) as it fades out at the end.
The volume is cranked up again and the upbeat, slightly poppy sounding guitars are back for Left Again. The song is another example of a somewhat negative subject matter – having someone leave you (‘Left, left, I’ve been left again.’ ) – with a more positive-sounding spin on it. Rather than being sad about it, Joe sings of moving on – it feels very life-affirming for the listener. ‘Yeah well I don’t wanna be one to sit alone at home and think about it.’
Neon Lights, on the other hand, is quite a sad song – but definitely sad in a beautiful kind of way. The song is a reworking of a Smoke or Fire track from their 2010 album, The Speakeasy. It’s not drastically different from the original but without the full band it feels a lot more heart-wrenching. The song begins with acoustic guitar only and the words ‘Oh god I wish I were a bird, I’d fly towards the sun, And I’d never return, To this place, It’s such a disgrace. I’d cut my arms and my legs off and burn up in space.’ Gentle piano and slightly less gentle drums kick in after a while but it’s the guitar that really stands out in Neon Lights. Around the 2 minute mark there is a lovely melodic guitar solo – it has a very Spanish classical guitar sound (at least to me) – which is a really standout element of the song.
The ninth track on Another Life is titled Black Socks Set Sail (and I have no idea what that means, sorry). The song begins with a with a verse that has slightly distorted and muted vocals (I’m sure there’s a technical term for it). This distorted style only lasts for about 25 seconds however, so it acts as an introduction to the rest of the song – which kicks off with a neat little drum roll. The song also features some more lovely melodic guitar playing, which contrasts with the rather melancholic lyrics of the chorus – ‘Leave a flower on my grave, Save yourself, Get far away, Free your time, Find your place, Save yourself, Get far away.’
Viva Las Cobras is one of the more exclusively acoustic tracks on Another Life. It’s a short song with a sort of uplifting and swinging motion to the guitar playing. The gentle duel guitars are joined by some positive lyrics – ‘Smile my friend, I just want to see you smile, Because we are the ones that make unhappiness, It’s no one else’s fault.’ I’m sure Joe had a particular person in mind when he wrote the song but it’s so accessible that each listener could apply it to a friend of their own.
As we draw towards the end of the album, Joe gives the listener one last chance to properly get their feet stomping with the penultimate track, Favorite High. It has much of the same great Americana-style elements that Canadian Graffiti had and so is another winner of a track with me. The drums are fast as are the vocals, while the guitar plays a slightly slower, sweeter melody. The sentiment of the song – ‘You’re my favourite, You’re my favourite high’ – is that the right person can make you feel far better than any drugs, be it alcohol, medicine or any other substance, ever can.
Great Big Eyes has the job of being Another Life’s closing track. The song begins with some big guitars that signal that this album is going to end in style. The song’s lyrics speak of a dream and the song itself feels almost dream-like. ‘Life is a dream I make up in my head, Either this isn’t happening or I’m already dead. Forgive me for the things that I cannot change, Draw from the beauty and not from the pain.’ I could honestly quote the whole song here as it has such beautiful lyrics… but I won’t. You can listen to the song yourself. Preferably after listening to the previous 11 tracks!
I’d also like to give a special mention to Graham Franciose who painted the album artwork for Another Life. Joe has stated that Graham is his favourite artist in the world and I think the artwork is just wonderful.