Mick McCullagh's trad debut features songwriting worthy of The Waterboys
Mick McCullagh, the Omagh-born singer-songwriter behind Meb Jon Sol, used to be the guitarist in soulful indie-rock band Colenso Parade, but his latest project mines a very different set of influences, a mixture of Irish-tinged folk-rock and bluegrass.
McCullagh – who plays acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, mandolin and keys – grew up with traditional music via his father's uncles and cousins, who are all trad musicians. Every time there was a family get-together, there would be a session, and the music clearly got its claws into him.
He has brought two of his former bandmates with him – Paul Mellon on drums and Fergal Lindsay on bass (the fourth Colenso member, Phil Taggart, is understandably not involved, given his burgeoning career at BBC Radio 1) – but Meb Jon Sol is a solo project, one which pays homage to the music of McCullagh's early life, while exercising his fine songwriting chops.
The trad influence is most evident on Southpaw Niños' first single, 'Leave All Your Troubles With Me', a bluegrass ballad in waltz time with twanging banjo, a lyrical violin part and a warm, heartfelt vocal from McCullagh.
It's probably fair to say that he isn't the most polished singer, but there is soul and authenticity to his voice, and you can picture him belting it out from the corner of a pub, or busking it on a busy street. McCullough sells the song well, and its tender meaning is amplified by the video, made with the help of friends scattered around the world.
There is more balladry in the form of 'I Am Yours', a song which employs a familiar conceit – 'a singer who does not sing, a guitar that has no strings, a church bell that does not ring…' – but gets by with some imaginative wordplay, a stirring chorus and the McGowanish snarl with which McCullagh tackles the verses.
The Pogues are another clear influence from his youth, and 'I Am Yours' is one of the clearest examples of this. Elsewhere, on 'Angie, Where Did Your Love Go?', McCullagh broadens his pallet with a sorrowful rock ballad.
Some moody electric guitar adds a splash of drama to the song and a mix of melancholy, vulnerability and pain in the vocal, but – as facile as this might seem – it's slightly hamstrung by the choice of 'Angie' as the name of the love interest. Maybe it's a deliberate nod to The Rolling Stones song of the same name, but it ends up being distracting, overshadowing McCullagh's own song, which is a shame.
'Southpaw Niños' is at its best when the tempo and energy rise, and McCullagh and friends let loose. The seafaring theme is even more pronounced on the opening track, 'Captain Of Your Ship', a rollicking number full of perilous imagery, with freewheeling mandolin, joyous backing vocals and a thumping rhythm to boot.
Likewise, 'I Am From Nowhere' has some blazing harmonica and the punk energy, featuring a gang of supporting vocals in the background. Best of all is the lilting folk-rock of 'Not Young Anymore', a genuinely affecting ode to fading youth with gorgeous banjo playing, fuzz-laden guitar and a melody to die for.
It's the album's high point – songwriting worthy of The Decemberists' Colin Meloy or another of McCullagh's main influences, Mike Scott of The Waterboys.
For a debut album – and especially one as short as this – McCullagh covers an impressive amount of ground, but that is not at the expense of coherence or character. His voice, proudly sporting an Omagh accent, his songs of love, friendship and family, and his ear for a stirring melody all see to that. Southpaw Niños is a promising debut, to say the least.
Southpaw Niños is available to download, and stream on Spotify, from October 13. Meb Jon Sol officially launch the album at Voodoo, Belfast on October 22.