Some of the most enduring rock has come out of Ireland. The Emerald Isle has given us Van Morrison, The Undertones, Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, and even U2 (if you’re so inclined). For a country with a population of less than five million – for comparison, that’s slightly more people than live within the city limits of Los Angeles – its imprint upon music (and most all cultural pursuits) is impressive and well-earned.
Niall Toner has been making music for some years now; his group Strand is the expression of his finely-tuned pop instincts. With a delightful voice, strong melodic ideas and carefully-constructed arrangements that suggest Crowded House or (to name a less-known entity) the Milk and Honey Band, Strand makes music that sounds like it’s bound for the top of the pops.
It’s no small feat to work with subtle chord shadings while still rocking; Difford and Tilbrook do it with Squeeze, and Toner shows that he has a similar facility. Like a fine visual artist, he knows how to apply shadow and light; the breakdown that wraps “Best Laid Plans” is wholly different from the rest of the song, yet it fits perfectly.
The breezy “Stole a Train” has a kinetic bassline and a lovely Leslie-effected lead guitar break. But rather than call attention to themselves, those elements exist as tools for constructing memorable music. The songs are commendably varied, at once displaying Toner’s breadth of musical vision and hanging together as a cohesive whole.
It’s difficult to pick a favorite from among the nine tunes on Can’t Trust the Rain; one delightful song ends, and another which follows seems to up the ante further. When he borrows a stylistic cue – the Pet Sounds textures on “No Underground” – he never* seems to be stealing, taking the easy road of engaging in pastiche. That same song features an entire verse of “Aahhh” – something few artists can pull off credibly – but it works superbly.
And when Strand crafts a gentle tune like “Ghosts,” the group makes it plain that their mastery extends in myriad musical directions: dig that 12-string lead. The group channels Randy Newman on the melancholy “Country That You Came From.” “Idiots” is lovely country rock not unlike Brinsley Schwarz or Unicorn. And the scintillating eight-minutes-plus title track qualifies as progressive pop a la 10cc.
Maybe you can’t trust the rain, but rest assured that you can count on quality music from Strand. Can’t Trust the Rain is hereby short-listed for my favorite albums of 2020.
* Hahaha…okay, that opening riff on “Roadkill” suggests Toner has heard Big Star‘s “In the Street” more than a few times. But my original point stands.