The Drays – Look Away Down Collins Avenue

I first encountered Stephen Ryan as a callow teenager circa 1986.

A Friday night in the cramped confines of the Baggot Inn.  Ryan and his band the Stars of Heaven regularly played at this most iconic of venues at a time when the Dublin music scene was at its most vibrant. Our relationship got off to a rocky start.  In truth, I wasn’t particularly taken with him. The band and Ryan in particular, projected an almost haughty disdain for their audience, an arrogance that seemed borne of a belief that they were better than this.

It didn’t take long before I succumbed and shared that belief. The Stars of Heaven made two albums and a couple of EPs before splitting up in 1990. Everything they released was magnificent. In the context of the Irish music scene, they were quite simply peerless. Their music, a deeply unfashionable shade of country rock, had an elegant beauty at odds with a local scene obsessed with unearthing the next U2 or Simple Minds.

After the Stars split, Ryan re-emerged sporadically to remind us of what we were missing – two albums of sustained brilliance with a new band the Revenants were released in 1993 and 1999. And then nothing.

It seemed almost criminal that one of the great Irish songwriters of his generation should drop off the radar, as a succession of charlatans, spoofers and fakers with a fraction of Ryan’s talent went on to enjoy considerable success.  News that Ryan was ready to end his self imposed exile and release a new record under the fresh moniker The Drays was greeted ecstatically by his loyal coterie of acolytes.

Look Away Down Collins Avenue is the first fruits of his newest venture and it’s an absolute pleasure from start to finish. Closer in spirit to the bar-room rock of the Revenants than the more understated and refined charms of the Stars of Heaven, it is a collection of songs that demonstrates that the passage of time has done nothing to dull the razor sharp song-writing talents of Stephen Ryan.

Ryan calls on a couple of musicians who served time with him in the Revenants –  guitarist Conor Brady and singer Eileen Gogan are roped in for a reprise of their respective roles in that band. Gogan’s contribution is particularly marked – her beautiful, plaintive vocals on ‘Queen of Time’ serving up one of the albums many highlights.

Elsewhere, Ryan borrows from a rag bag of classic influences – echoes of the Replacements, Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, Gram Parsons and the Byrds are etched into the grooves of songs like ‘The Assignment’, ‘The Fourteenth Floor’ and ‘Portuguese Trucks’. In all his time making music, Ryan has never deviated too far from what he knows best and why would he when it has served him so well. Memorable melodies, great harmonies and the sound of cranked up Telecaster guitars underpin these songs and give them their timeless, classic feel.

Look Away Down Collins Avenue serves as a reminder that great music has no direct link with popularity or record sales. The same level of indifference amongst the music buying public that saw the Stars of Heaven largely ignored will probably greet Stephen Ryan’s latest stellar addition to a body of work to be proud of. That’s the way of the world, but for those of us who still believe that music means something more than record sales and radio plays, Look Away Down Collins Avenue is a resounding and unqualified success.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)



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