Six String Love Stories

Pete Gardiner revels in wordplay, imagery and catchy hooks on his impressive debut album

Pete Gardiner’s Six String Love Stories is a work steeped in the great singer-songwriter tradition.

The passion and storytelling of Bruce Springsteen at his chest-beating best. The lyrical web weaving of Bob Dylan at his most wordy yet wonderous. The sparse economy of language that made Leonard Cohen both a poet and a supreme songsmith. You can hear it all, and more, in the 10 tracks offered up by the 27-year-old Newtownards songwriter on this, his debut album.

That’s not to say that this album is a work of slavish imitation, however. Gardiner adds his own, uniquely Northern Irish spin to proceedings. Produced with care, and no little craft, by Paul Steen at his home in Newtownards, this is the artist’s own story, told in his own voice and filtered through his own life experience.

Sticking to that reliable old adage to 'write about what you know', these 10 tales of love, loss and social misadventure in east Belfast practically pound with a barely restrained frustration about the state of the world today.

When the words spill out on tracks like 'Doorstep Riots', it’s not the mean streets of Detroit or Brooklyn that Gardiner is commentating on, but rather his those of his own troubled homeland.

Lines about Short Strand churches burning in the night and streets 'lined with thugs coming down from class B drugs' are tossed casually into the mix as our protagonist tries to make it home after an evening on the town.

The effect is startling. It’s rare to hear Belfast written about in song with such cracking rhymes, but Gardiner never forgets the importance of a well sung chorus, either.

Just about every track here, from the opener 'Promises' – with its talk of street corner pessimists and 'no breath being held round here for dreams coming true' – to the closing notes of 'Gone' boasts the kind of memorable chorus that just screams out for repeat radio play on sunny summer afternoons.

Powerful images of pay day loan sharks, bar room bright lights and transparent road maps stay with you long after the music ends. Tunes like 'Hard Days' thump home their message of struggling on in the face of financial collapse with a truth and passion that The Boss himself would be proud of.

Other songs like the catchy 'James Dean', a tale of a friend’s descent into mental illness, show a songwriter of real depth and one who isn’t afraid to take some chances. Throughout acoustic guitars are strummed sympathetically, drums roll in when required and the odd atmospheric harmonica wail adds to the accomplished feel.

Gardiner was bought his first guitar at 10 and spent much of his pre-teen years learning the craft. A regular on the local pub scene, he clearly understands the benefits of hard work. Hardly a bar in the Newtownards and Bangor area hasn’t echoed to his impassioned story songs in the last few years.

From The Old Cross to The Ivy, Coyles to The Goat’s Toe, Gardiner has perfected his sound rattling out the usual array of covers demanded by audiences while craftily slipping the odd original in for good measure.

In 2012 those original songs found a home on his Devil’s Payroll EP, and saw Gardiner awarded top prize at the Ards Guitar Festival singer-songwriter competition. Building on that success, he released a powerful six-track selection of tunes called Songs At Sunset that contained the track 'Holywood Lights', which first alerted me to the man and his music.

Six String Love Stories feels like the album all that hard work has been building up to. Hook laden and stuffed with some seriously impressive lyrical imagery, it’s a record that suggests a fresh new local talent has truly arrived. Enamoured with the greats Gardiner may be – and it’s tempting to pick out a Tom Petty riff here or a Lloyd Cole vocal inflection there – but this is a supremely confident debut that truly has something to say.