All City Records continues its worthy Allchival series with a long overdue reissue of the one and only album by street musician Michael O’Shea, originally released in 1982. Beyond the endeavours a few staunch obsessives throwing a lifeline into the sea of mildew, it’s all too easy for an artifact of this nature to slip through the cracks and down the sewer of vinyl oblivion…
To add to the confusion of what’s what, we are in an era when revisionism and repackaging can add currency to every shabby anomaly. All it takes is the unscrupulous scouring of a dead priest’s record collection or the validation of some chin-stroking gonk who writes for The Wire to conveniently remould any given backstory. Retrospective associations that never were have an increasingly bad habit of turning everything into Uzbekistani psych drone or Burkina Faso acid folk or Nagorno-Karabakh proto psychill when the truth of the matter is that many of these recordings belong in the local charity shop alongside dog-eared James Last and Roger Whittaker detritus.
…Fortunately, Michael O’Shea’s self-titled and standalone album is indeed a thing that dreams of unearthed treasure are made of…
Central to the intrigue of this record are 2 elements – the enigma of the grossly under-documented O’Shea – and the beguiling noise of his homemade laptop instrument, Mó Cará. Not exactly a dulcimer and not exactly a zither, O’Shea’s transient existence led to the necessity of the instrument after selling his sitar to join two dots on a map in central Europe some time in the mid 70s.
The musician’s own sleeve notes (from the original release) explain that Mó Cará was essentially comprised of an old door dragged from a skip, strings, chopstick hammers and built-in amplification, along with vague allusion to other internal wiring including something referred to only as the “black hole space echo box”.
Eventually settling in London, a year of management under English jazz saxophonist and club owner Ronnie Scott in 1980 might have made O’Shea a blip on the radar of those with a foothold in the music industry of the time – Don Cherry, Rick Wakeman, Alice Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, the later who he supported at the Royal Festival Hall – but this ultimately did little to elevate him beyond busker status.
It took a post-punk appetite for the weird and wonderful to document this music. Wire’s Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis (operating as DOME between ‘80 and ‘84) extended an open invitation to record, and the album was eventually tracked in one day at Eric Radcliffe’s Blackwing Studios in South-East London. It was subsequently released on their own Dome record label. O’Shea also made an appearance on Stano’s debut album in 1983.
Because of a 1991 CD reissue, the musical content of the album has been available to the curious via youtube uploads and whatnot, but the original vinyl artifact from 1982 has been long lost to the Discogs vortex. The Allchival reissue addresses this with enthusiastic spit and polish, a deserved remastering and extensive liner notes.
5 tracks in all, the album’s opener NO JOURNEY’S END is perhaps its centerpiece. This heady and potent composition packs a progression of rhythm and melody into its 15-minute duration that seamlessly alternates contemplation and chaos.
Curious and intriguing are percussive elements that swell throughout the track – at times like reverberating castanets, others like an overzealous and willfully disruptive stomp near recording equipment. If this were some sterilised folkish new-age meditation record, these elements would be considered amateur hour at the controls, belligerent drunken performance and a sackable offence. Luckily, it was in the right hands for engineering innovation.
Without knowing how many tracks were actually employed in the recording of this music, it’s a wild guess as to whether the results were born of tactful studio layering, well-worn busking tricks or the employ of additional electro-acoustic internals…
…And we’re probably not supposed to know…
…While the cover image of Michael O’Shea conjures a fully formed live performance straight out of the box, and a quote from Wire’s Graham Lewis on the packaging suggests that these tracks were straight takes, technical dissection is a perfect path to soiling the magic of audio gratification.
KERRY fades in with the same sound palate but a different pace, trading the raga-mimicking disarray of track one with something more recognisably local in its traditional inflections. O’Shea was of Kerry parentage, but raised in Carlingford at a time when the nearby border with the north had left the town for dead, and far from “the Kinsale of the North-East” it now brands itself as. A windswept and idyllic piece by comparison, KERRY is a step dance tune of strange and disturbing dreams rather than codified convention.
Apparently the b-side of the record is where Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis participate to a greater degree in experimental production. GUITAR NO.1 is treated with a sort of ambient overlay that draws it toward the sonic palette of the DOME albums. The effects are heavier on VOICES, and the track is right on the borderline between chiming resonance and uncomfortable audio sludge. There’s no way to make it sound enticing on paper but in the context of the album, it’s a glorious din.
Finally, ANFA DÁSACHTACH plays through like a live dub that tests the sonic boundaries of the material beyond everything that has come before, leaving the beauty of irrationality until last as a remarkable closing to the record.
Because the Michael O’Shea story is threadbare in places, Failed Bohemian’s ever meticulous inner sleeve essay is probably the most comprehensive picture we will ever get of the musician. O’Shea died in 1991 and as a result, this is a recording of endless assumption and interpretation, and much can be supposed about the pan-influences that fed into the music and bled out of it….
…But at its core, this record embraces all the sound and fury of spiritual immersion and combines it with one-man-band idiosyncrasy – In simple terms, it’s the beautiful chaos of an unpasteurised creative mind.