The Devil is a Songbird

Ports' long-awaited debut album is one to fall into and appreciate in full, placing them amongst the modern masters of sophisticated and heart-breaking alt rock

Halcyon days, they were – heralded by an announcement on The One Show, of all places, cheered to the rafters in pubs along Waterloo Street – when Derry~Londonderry reigned supreme as the inaugural UK City of Culture in 2013.

Old heads played their part. Phil Coulter, Dana and the Undertones all shared the stage in the early months, but as the celebrations gathered pace it was the new wave of musicians who truly played to the occasion.

No native artists impressed more than the prodigiously talented 16-year-old singer-songwriter Bridie Monds-Watson, otherwise known as Soak, and Little Bear, a fledgling four-piece plucked from relative obscurity to fill in on RTE’s Other Voices.

Their performance was thrilling, a short, laidback set of muscular indie songs marked by mature harmonies, twinkling keys and singer and bass player Steven McCool’s flawless falsetto. This was no generic garage band; Little Bear had serious writing chops. ‘Night dries in like ink against the flowing seas.’ Coulter and Heaney would be proud.

While Soak went on to become a darling of the Radio 1 generation, signing with Rough Trade Records and subsequently releasing a Mercury Prize-nominated debut album, Before We Forgot How To Dream, Little Bear kept a relatively low profile, retreating to their writing rooms and day jobs, playing gigs across Europe and further afield.

Post-2013, a copyright issue in the US forced a name change – which, to many, proved to be a good thing; Little Bear lacked a certain mystique, to put it mildly – and in July 2014, Ports (sometimes styled as PORTS, or PØRTS) released a relatively rough three-track EP, Race With The Tide, which featured familiar material given a studio makeover.

The EP hinted at greater things to come, but it is fair to say that no-one predicted that Ports would ultimately unveil a debut album of such quality as The Devil is a Songbird, arguably one of the strongest albums to ever come out of Northern Ireland.

Featuring 13 tracks (zero fillers), it puts the band, for this writer at least, on a par with Villagers, Doves, Elbow and acts of that ilk – a cut above, masters of sophisticated, lyrical alt rock songs chock full of gorgeous instrumentation and heart-breaking imagery.

‘I’d Let You Win’ and the stunning ‘Remedies’ – which may reference Derry’s ‘broken’ past: ‘We all find remedies, we all forget’ – are particular highlights, evidence that McCool is a writer of depth, sharing more in common with Villagers’ Conor O’Brien than, say, Coldplay’s Chris Martin.

From opening track ‘Sunrise’, with its plaintive piano line and wordless vocal accompaniment, to the jaunty, finger-picked closer ‘What’s On Your Mind’, The Devil is a Songbird plays out as an exquisite set of songs, an album that deserves to be appreciated in full, fallen into, embraced, sang at full pelt.

Ports financed the recording and post-production of the album themselves, and counted on the talents of many fellow Derry natives to get the job done. The Devil is a Songbird was produced in Blast Furnace Studios by the extremely capable Liam Craig, arranged in part by Michael Doherty and features strings performed by the Prima Quartet, including violinist Niamh McGowan.

So while Derry’s year as UK City of Culture may seem like a long, long time ago, it is only now that we are able to enjoy one of its finest fruits. Ports are a band with the potential to go global, with the songs to scoop Ivor Novellos, and the work ethic to produce many more albums like this one. Let’s hope they do.

The Devil is a Songbird is available now to purchase through Smalltown America Records and iTunes, and to stream on Spotify. Ports play Stendhal Festival of Art in Limavady on August 12 and the Open House Festival in Bangor on August 14.