Polite and well-meaning, passionate and witlessly thoughtful (“One thing about colours is that colours always speak their minds” — hunh?), Dublin’s An Emotional Fish was too deeply in the thrall of U2 and Simple Minds to make a debut album of any consequence. The Dylan-meets-the-Waterboys blend of the taut “Celebrate” suggests an incipient personality, but a lot of An Emotional Fish is the sketchbook of untalented amateurs attempting to jot down the work of a master: the echoing guitar pings (David Frew), thrusting basslines (Enda Wyatt) and surging vocal power (Gerard Whelan) are all there on the palette, but the labors betray no hint of the motivation or invention underlying the real thing. If originality wasn’t an option for the young band, careful mimicry might have sufficed, but these lads didn’t have the heart to do that, either.
“I’ll forget everything I ever said,” sings Whelan on “Rain,” the song that inaugurates Junk Puppets, and he’s not kidding. The stuttering, guitar-charged dance track renounces every stylistic feature of An Emotional Fish for a whole new landscape. Produced into a split personality by Alan Moulder, David A. Stewart and Clive Langer, the album maps out a dramatic, kinetic surge of pointed, textured rhythmic noise-pop that is, at times, not entirely unlike the clamorous sound of U2’s Achtung Baby. Going out on a conceptual limb with numbers like the speculative “If God Was a Girl” (which quietly appropriates a bit of “Jesus Christ Superstar”) and “Hole in My Heaven,” overstretching material that has inadequate structural stamina, An Emotional Fish doesn’t knock this one out of the park (for one thing, too many lyrics encourage chortles), but it’s still a great leap forward.
Having made that hard left turn, AEF threw the map away for the calmer, more intimate Sloper. Nothing like either of its predecessors, the self-produced album is a riot of borrowed idioms: Lou Reed, Bowie (by way of Suede), rootsy pop, soul, Waterboys folk, disco — even a sappy country duet. The whole thing is daft but engaging, a musical kaleidoscope bound together by Whelan’s gentle singing. Other than consistency, lyrics that don’t suck remain the band’s most elusive challenge. Recipe for a fine Fish dish: keep lines like “It seems obvious to me that you’ll still be there tomorrow/With the happiness that you borrowed from the clowns” out of the mix, settle on a few favored genres and get back to work.