Getting a handle on what exactly to expect from Clann Zù without hearing their music is tough. After all they're an Australian band of Irish expats signed to a Canadian label most well known for releasing Propagandhi and Swallowing Shit albums, a five person band with a standard guitar-bass-drums core augmented by a full time violinist and a 'sound manipulator', and after their break-up part of that lineup went on to form the post-hardcore/emo group My Disco while lead singer Declan DeBarra started a solo career with a few lush albums of folk music. All those things inform what you hear on their lone two full lengths, two of the most unheralded releases of the decade in my opinion, but they don't give you the full picture either. Even knowing all that, the minute that Rua's opener "Words for Snow" explodes into a potent 11/4 section, followed by DeBarra screaming 'For Christ's sake help me/for Christ's sake get me out of here/God of all sick things GET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE/GET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERE' while a mournfully aggressive tandem violin-guitar breakdown looms on the horizon will still take you by surprise. Clann Zù consistently pulled off things like that, and for that alone they deserve your time. It's not just their ability to surprise that put them on my shortlist and eventually at such a lofty position on this final version - I initially had them a bit higher even, truth be told - but the fact that if pressed I might call them the most passionate group of musicians who recorded anything this decade. This applies more to Rua than it's more reigned-in follow up, but between De Barra's highly emotional vocals and the fury that the band can harness at key moments it's possibly the most emotionally draining stuff I've heard this decade.
Rua may be slightly weaker on the whole - it's a similar situation between it and Black Coats and Bandages as between The National's Alligator and Boxer I guess - but for a debut album it's pretty impressive in its own right. The band's sound is firmly in place, a bit more varied but distinctly theirs at all points. The integration of Celtic themes into what is at its base a pretty straightforward rock sound isn't anything new, I mean that shit goes back to The Pogues or even Thin Lizzy, but something about Clann Zù's means of doing so is pretty distinctive. It's not that they do much besides have De Barra sing in a medium brogue and feature a heavy amount of violin on most of the tracks, but the way it informs the sound of the album is unique enough to make them stand out. Put another way, none of these songs sound like anyone but Clann Zù could have made them; any similar bands either don't have the ferocity, the passion or the skill to pull it off. If a debut album's job above everything else is to introduce your band's sound in the most concise way possible, then Rua gets that done with much more ease than 90% of debut albums.
It probably helps that they're working with a pretty uniform group of songs too. I can't say enough good thing about "Words for Snow", easily the highlight of the band's catalog with that unexpected shift into full on rock out mode, some fantastic bass countermelodies and some of De Barra's best vocals and lyrics, but really of the ten tracks here only " Everyone in the World" really stands as weaker than the rest. "Crashing to the Floor" is probably the simplest thing here but the call and response between the violin and vocals, plus that excellent drum build up makes it one of the best songs on the album. "Everyday" is absolutely gorgeous in it s melancholy, "All the People Now" is at once rousing and kinda subdued in a contrast that works well and closer "You're Listening to a Dead Man Speak" ends the album on a suitably calm note given some of the chaos contained therein. When I first heard it I honestly thought that the novelty would wear off quickly, but Rua just kept growing on me with each subsequent listen as the songs revealed just how much talent the quintet possessed and how much passion they brought to the table.
It also probably helped that as I was discovering the depths of Rua, Black Coats and Bandages had come along and pretty much blew me away from the first listen. It didn't have the fury of its predecessor, but the band had tightened up considerably giving the album a mice sense of cohesion and consistency. Of course they still got their fury on at regular intervals - "From an Unholy Height" is 100% pissed off at all times and all the better for it - but on the whole the tone of Black Coats is much more subdued. There's a distinctly jazzy feel to something like "There Will Be No Morning Copy" due mainly to the band's restraint as well as the production which turns down the loudness of Rua to a much more dynamic and subtle level. When the album does explode though it's still just as exciting as ever, and since most of those moments are shoved to the back half it gives Black Coats a greater sense of tension and release on the whole as opposed to just on the level of the individual songs. Like I said, the difference between the two albums is that Black Coats feels like an album while Rua feels more like a collection of songs. It may seem like an odd distinction to make but in my mind it's all the difference in the world.
Though being more of an album doesn't mean that Black Coats is lacking for highlights either. Once again there's a consistent level of quality across the whole album, but on top of that you've gotta give some extra props to the likes of "From an Unholy Height"'s righteous fury at the Catholic Church ('cross in one hand and a cock in the other/state sat in your lap while you barked out the order') and "You'll Have to Swim"'s tense regret ('I would never change a single fucking thing/despite the fact that I know the brutal vicious end/I still would have kissed you that day'). "One Bedroom Apartment" might not have the strongest lyrics, but musically it's a step above the rest with its progression through various levels of intensity each culminating in a lonely piano accompanying De Barra's croon of 'I will never love again'. That one aside though De Barra's lyrics really came into their own here, the more personal material resonating more than it had previously and the slightly political side shown on "From an Unholy Height" shows that he can write just as effectively when he's not as focused on internal matters.
It's a shame that it was their last release together since it found the whole unit in a nice groove. Of course their subsequent projects were good, but neithe De Barra's solo work or My Disco's limited releases have come close to the special kind of magic that occurred in Clann Zù. It's a shame that such a promising and uniformly great band had to come to its end in its prime, but at least the two albums they left can sit comfortably alongside the best stuff the decade has to offer.