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WINTER ALBUM ROUNDUP : Irish Rogues and a Shaven Irish Lassie : Check List * * * * Great Balls of Fire * * * Good Vibrations * * Maybe Baby * Running on Empty :

February 14, 1988|KRISTINE McKENNA

* * * THE POGUES. "If I Should Fall From Grace With God." Island. The 1986 LP, "Rum, Sodomy and the Lash," by this band of Irish rogues was such an unexpected pleasure that its follow-up was bound to be a bit disappointing. And while the qualities that made the music on that LP so memorable remain basically intact, the beautiful resonances that informed it are slightly tarnished here.

Traditional Irish folk musicians with heavy punk damage, the Pogues do two types of song: lyrical ballads and frantic rave-ups that combine equal parts Irish jig, mariachi music, Spike Jones and punk. They struck the perfect balance between those disparate moods last time out, but "If I Should Fall" goes a bit heavy on the rave-ups. These drinking songs are essentially tales of high adventure told with plenty of Irish slang. This hyperbolic style of musical narrative is a venerated folk (and drinking) tradition, and the Pogues have it down to a fine art.

However, the Pogues' brawling beer songs pale next to leader Shane MacGowan's ballads, the best of which have the timeless grandeur of material by Richard Thompson and the early work of Robbie Robertson. Six of the tracks here fall into that category, including "A Fairytale of New York," a duet with Kirsty MacColl for two lovebird barflies (a hit in England, it owes a tip of the hat to Tom Waits) and "Thousands Are Sailing," an immigrant's recollection of Ellis Island, and "Streets of Sorrow."

MacGowan has the poetic nature and command of language commonly ascribed to the Irish, and these tunes are lovely indeed. However, his writing has a peculiar recurring flaw: He rarely includes a bridge in his songs, and the verse-after-verse-after-verse structure tends to go flat and monotonous.

MacGowan's writing may be uneven but his vocals are never less than superb. Singing with the grizzled authority of a wise old man who's seen more than he'll ever have time to tell, MacGowan manages to come off as a consummate vocal stylist while remaining completely free of pretense or affectation.

Though "If I Should Fall" is undeniably a worthwhile LP of great originality and spirit, longtime fans are bound to notice a few of the grace notes missing. It seems nit-picky to split hairs about a record that's easily superior to most of what's on the charts, but MacGowan has already shown the promise of developing into a truly great artist. So, ninety-nine and a half just won't do for him.

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