New York singer/guitarist — and self-published playwright — Larry Kirwan is, first and foremost, for better and much worse, a dramatist. If that makes his rock credibility suspect, it’s not for want of onstage exertion or long-term effort to find the most effective vehicle for his narrative compulsions. In the late ’70s, he and fellow Irish expatriate Pierce Turner recorded as Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, a shaggy bearded duo crafting folky art-rock that namechecked Frodo and cursed medieval dawns pregnant with minions’ cries. The following decade, the two resurfaced as East Village new wavers, alternately chanting “Avenue B” over tribal drum machines and emoting Human League-like in the Major Thinkers. By the ’90s, however, Kirwan had become an uptown guy (the Fordham section of the Bronx, where many recent arrivals from Ireland have settled) and was beating his ethno-political breast and pumping his fist in the roots-rocking Black 47, whose sizable following, primarily among Irish-Americans, was amassed over an extended residency at a Manhattan bar.
Named to invoke memories of Ireland’s 19th-century potato famine (the one Sinéad O’Connor once claimed didn’t occur), Black 47 is a bizarre and clumsy stew of horns, hip-hopping electronic percussion, Gaelic traditionalism, electric guitar and gurgly overwrought vocals. (Imagine a band built with the wrong parts taken from the Pogues, Clash and Bruce Springsteen.) The sextet graced its fans with an eponymous self-released album and then signed to a major label. The five archetypal songs co-produced by Kirwan and Ric Ocasek for Black 47 make it the only record anyone need own by the band, whose theatrical overzealousness, topical grandstanding and forced stylistic blend frequently conspire to make it unbearable. The cinematic, autobiographical “Funky Céili (Bridie’s Song)” rewrites Squeeze’s “Up the Junction” (minus the morose restraint); Kirwan sings out about the woman he left behind as if his heart were about to burst from the passion of it all. The rest of the disc mixes historical righteousness (the anti-British “James Connolly” and “Black 47”) and personal rambunctiousness (“Maria’s Wedding,” “Our Lady of the Bronx”) in a welter that is overwrought and exhausting.
The full-length Fire of Freedom repeats four of those songs, adding the abominable “Rockin’ the Bronx,” a rapped story-of-the-band (with tin whistle and uilleann pipes), and a bunch of numbers that reprise the EP’s essential formula without any further development or imagination. Autobiography is Kirwan’s weakness: “New York, NY 10009” explains why he formed the Major Thinkers and proceeds to detail that band’s career, but the specific romantic reminiscence of “Banks of the Hudson” is no more involving or tolerable. Ocasek’s co-production shapes the music into presentable pointlessness, but it’s hard to hear anything beyond Kirwan’s singing and lyrics.
Switching from one old new wave star to another, Black 47 got ex-Talking Head Jerry Harrison to produce Home of the Brave in wan imitation of the R&B phase of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, the horn-driven band in which Black 47 saxman Geoff Blythe is said to have once played. “Different Drummer” dances a merry jig, but otherwise the album cuts way back on the music’s Irish component in favor of such absurd culture escapades as the reggaefied “Voodoo City,” the rap-dancehall-ska mess of “Black Rose” and “Time to Go,” written and rapped (well…) by Seanchaí, aka Chris Byrne, Black 47’s pipe-and-whistle-playing ex-cop. (Byrne also rhymes in a Gaelic hip-hop side band, Paddy a Go Go.) “Blood Wedding,” sung as a duet with guest Claudette Sierra, sounds like Meat Loaf. Beyond the usual real-life characters of “Oh Maureen” and “Danny Boy” (about an Irish AIDS victim), Kirwan strains for functional song subjects. With the gears obviously whirring for the scripts he could be writing, Kirwan sings in the first person about “Paul Robeson” (arranged for maximum incongruity as a glib soul-funk extravaganza, complete with readings of Robeson’s words) and wonders “Who Killed Bobby Fuller?” as the existential response to his own mistreatment by muggers and lovers.