ALBUM OF THE WEEK – BIRMINGHAM SUNDAY MERCURY
ANDY FLANNAGAN : Drowning In The Shallow
Sep 23 2012 by Paul Cole, Sunday Mercury
VISIT the Houses of Parliament and odds are you’ll spot Andy Flannagan.
The former NHS hospital doctor is a political protest campaigner with a knack of getting himself heard.
No surprise, then, that he’s also a storyteller and a songwriter. But who would have thought he’d record an album that may just be the best you’re likely to hear all year?
Drowning In The Shallow is a gorgeous set of songs drawn both from personal loss and the ills of society.
But where the likes of Billy Bragg tend to be strident, Flannagan’s musical mood is mellow, the bite hidden in the lyrics to catch you unawares.
“There are themes of broken places, things and people, including me,” he says. “The thread that runs through the songs is inspiring people doing inspiring things in difficult places.
“You’ll hear about folks who have given of their lives in the toughest parts of this planet, from Chennai in India to an orphanage in Uganda.
“One person who truly inspired me is Mick Duncan. He gave up a life in New Zealand to go and live amongst slum dwellers in the Philippines.
“I remember something his daughter said when they came back.
“‘What’s it like being in the middle of all that poverty?’ she was asked. ‘I never saw any poverty. I just saw my friends,’ she replied.
“Could we be the generation that doesn’t have to start lots of projects to connect with and help the poor, needy and marginalised among us, but we help them simply because they’re our neighbours?”
Flannagan’s use of acoustic guitar and cello has prompted Damien Rice comparisons, but they’re wide of the mark. His gentle vocal sets him alongside the likes of Martyn Joseph.
The title track is drop dead gorgeous, while Addictions is a wry look at a dysfunctional society where we’d rather watch TV than talk.
But it’s two tales of tragedy that inspire the highlights here.
Fragile,remembering friends killed in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, is deeply moving. And I Will Not Be Leaving, about Joseph, a baby boy left alone for days at birth, has a desperate beauty to it.
Flannagan is setting out on his ‘Invisible Tour’, playing hospices, prisons and homeless shelters for free, bringing hope where it’s in short supply.
It’s typical of the man,. Like the album, just what the doctor ordered. PC
All concept albums should be like Andy Flannagan‘s latest effort; soulful, truthful and embodying today by the bucketload.
5/5 – review by Iain P W Robertson
Taking Andy Flannagan’s career into account, it is inevitable that his musical endeavours will be perceived as axes to grind. He will admit freely to being a ‘campaigner’ and, having been employed formerly as a hospital doctor, he certainly possesses first-hand experiences to be turned into useful narratives.
If you cannot tell from the spelling of his surname, let me elucidate, by informing you that he is an Irishman. I am unsure of what it is that makes the Irish and the Scots such first-class songwriters and storytellers. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that the Celtic voice embodies a level of expressionism that transcends those of more cosmopolitan origins. Combine these factors into one usefully expressive entity and you arrive at a Flannagan, or a Paul Brady, Moya Brennan, even a Bob Geldof and Chris de Burgh. Comparisons with Damien Rice are inevitable.
Flannagan’s present career path courses through the halls of Westminster, as he has hopped onto a political bandwagon. Reading through his lyricism, listening to the pained expressions and hearing the emotion in his voice, Flannagan could be described as ‘doing a Bono’, albeit on a different and, perhaps intrinsically, more effective level.
Much of his past musical efforts have been used extensively by government departments and various quangoes, arising from his performances for MPs, to his attendances at ‘right-on’ (or perhaps that should be ‘left’?) events worldwide. Regardless of his sense of direction and from whence he might be coming, there is no denying the wondrous beauty of his poignant, poetic, yet hugely pained lyrics. Flannagan is a man who cares and cares deeply and that can be perceived as his most important aspect.
Drowning In The Shallow is a 12-track album of deep and meaningful songs, starting with the title track, passing through ‘Reason’, ‘Ego’ and ‘Addictions’, yet containing ‘Healing’, ‘Fragile’ and ‘I Will Not Be Leaving’, as a final confirmation that he intends to hang around for a bit to get his messages across. The lyrics are attractive and the man’s voice is utterly beguiling.
The album has been expertly produced by Grammy Award-winning Alan Branch, whose work with Jeff Beck, Cat Stevens and Sinead O’Connor among others is well documented and respected. However, strumming on his battered Lowden, which carries the scars of his instantaneous performances, needs accompaniment on an album production.
Able to lean on the mellow string section at Abbey Road, led him to female cello maestro, Lucy Payne, whose melodious, languidly wailing instrument plays a vital role throughout this album. Matt Hay factors in both North African oud and violin support, while Yves Fernandez (bass) and Peter Lockett (percussion) add necessary enrichment to the overall quality.
To be frank, it is almost too easy to link Flannagan’s performances to those of Damien Rice. They come from similar locations and heartlands. There is as much pain and emotion from both performers and it is this ‘likeness’ that can cause Andy Flannagan’s imbroglio to be lost. Yet, he warrants a grander audience.
Forget the politicising of his lyrics. Ignore his campaigning stance. Instead, just listen to the sweetness and impeccable balance of his musicality and that voice. You can tell that it is a well-honed sound and it is effortlessly beautiful. Whether that is enough in the music business, where he wants his songs to emphasise his intent, may not be the best route to the mainstream. Yet, Drowning In The Shallow is much more than just a worthy album.
RECORD COLLECTOR MAGAZINE
Protest with a low-key persuasive game plan
Sharing the delicate folk sensibilities of Damien Rice, the music of Andy Flannagan covers a wide waterfront of political and social issues; carefully cushioned protest songs that attempt to charm listeners rather than wave placards in their faces. His more faith-based material may be unpalatable to some listeners (‘Stop looking for clues/This is no mystery.’ he sings on the “The Reason”), but the director of the Labour Party-affiliated Christian Socialist Movement is careful not to indulge in too much soapbox sermonising.
For the most part, Drowning in the Shallow sensibly steers clear of the pulpit, focusing more on broad morality than any specific belief system. The lilting Ego addresses the compromises needed to make a marriage work, while the affecting I Will Not Be Leaving was inspired by the singer’s visits to third world orphanages.
There’s further raging against an unethical world on Fragile, Seven Storeys and This Poet, but with great subtlety, gently picked guitars accompanied by understated cello and violin, Flannagan’s modus operandi is to highlight injustice via a keen eye for detail and eloquent turn of phrase, his messages reaching their targets with more impact than any amount of knee-jerk sloganeering.
Sojo.net – sojourners magazine, USA
Too often, the album is a place where singles wait to be released and B-sides go to die. Very rarely does an album tell a story, or offer real insight into the artist’s world. Creating a narrative on an album is a lost art. But when a record actually tells a moving and coherent story, then it can become a piece of art far more powerful than simply notes and words on a page. So it is with Andy Flannagan’s new album, Drowning in the Shallow.
Drowning in the Shallow combines personal reflection with social commentary, creating an album that feels like it has been created from pages from Andy’s journal – with songs capturing moments in time, as well as bigger thoughts swirling around his mind.
The flow between personal and social commentary is mirrored in the eclectic musicality of the album. Each song is slightly different, and the album moves easily and without dissonance from reflective ballads to rousing protests songs, hovering briefly over the haunting ‘Seven Stories’.
This is not an album that you can dip in and out of. While each song has its own story and charm, their truth is manifested most vividly and powerfully when they are listened to as a collection.
Take the time to listen to the album. Rest in it. Reflect on Andy’s journey and what his story stirs up in you.
Listen slowly and listen well. Don’t risk falling into the trap of ‘drowning in the shallows’.
this is both sweet and lush! – Foy Vance
CROSS RHYTHMS 10 out of 10
Reviewed by Brendan O’Regan
The London-based Irish singer/songwriter has been around a long while though ‘Drowning In The Shallow’ is Andy’s first new recording since 2004’s ‘Son’. I should report right away that this is a near perfect album – insightful and challenging lyrics, infectious melodies, warm, confident, clear and committed singing, tasteful musical accompaniment and gorgeous harmony vocals. I was hooked on the album right from the opening title track, a reflection on the downside of playing safe – “Failure is my fear/and caution is my call/But the surest way to sink/is when you don’t move at all”
Louder than the music
The opening track on this album is indeed title track Drowning In The Shallow. With an acoustic guitar the song is a beautiful gentle worship song. It builds slowly and towards the end Andy really lets his vocal go as he sings out with vigor “I Am Free”.
One thing Andy knows how to do is craft a beautiful song, and none can be more tender and charming than the tracks Pieces Of April and The Poet . Both showcase Andy’s songwriting skills and you can easily grasp the fact that this man has something to say and he does it so cleverly and poetically.
This is a story telling album, which is so beautifully crafted that any songwriter would be proud of. There is some really clever use of different orchestral instruments, some nice guitar work and haunting piano work. The album is full of great melodic songs that are actually telling the listener about the person or issue that each was written about. Andy deserves full praise for making such an interesting and intriguing album. Drowning In The Shallow is a songwriter’s album and well worth getting hold of.
Andy Flannagan’s new album rouses a sleeping Church to become radical and generous
Andy Flannagan’s new album, Drowning in the Shallow, zooms right in on personal brokenness, and simultaneously pans out to tell a universal story of hurt and hope.
Musically familiar, with his strong vocals, clean guitar and layers of strings, the listener is immediately made aware that there’s more to be heard here than just pleasing chord progressions. The album doesn’t attempt to be anything more than it is, which is a collection of stories told with a clear-sightedness that middle class Christianity in the West usually prevents. It’s a personal compilation of Flannagan’s experiences of witnessing suffering in varied forms and places, and the unavoidable and often uncomfortable readjusting of heart and perspective that follows.
Flannagan’s story-telling is unusually realistic about the murky complexity of the world. In I Will Not Be Leaving, his description of a neglected child at an orphanage he supports is nothing short of heartbreaking: “Barely breathing you lie/left hiding to die/starved start to a life/no-one gave you a name.”. This honesty consequently enables him to sing unreservedly of the renewing, life-giving power of the gospel, lending his songs a sense of integrity that’s lacking from those which simply skirt around truths that are hard to stomach. Pieces of April perfectly demonstrates this double purpose, as the lines: “Now I don’t know when this pain will end/and I don’t know if you will face it again” face up to the uncertainty of suffering, while the successive lines gently uncover the asylum of being in relationship with God: So would you let this love enfold you?/and would you let this love remould you?/would you speak those words unspoken?/would you now believe you’re broken?”
This clear vision and frank honesty can probably safely be attributed to Flannagan’s social and political activism, which surge through the current of the album – revealing first the confusion and compassion of being faced with a vividly broken world, and moving in the concluding songs to rouse a sleeping, comfortable Church to be radical and generous in their heart and action for the abused, neglected and hurting: “We need an army/to storm this front/to reach for the broken/and touch the finger of God” (I Will Not Be Leaving).
So how is this harsh confrontation with the agony of the world bearable? Flannagan talks in Fragile of how this agony, as well every part of life, is part of a greater story, as he recounts Jesus going before us and bearing the ultimate adversity: “But this same man knows more than me about suffering/so calm this overwhelming force/‘cos earth and heaven seem divorced.” How appropriate that to end an album that observes, hurts and aches for change, the final song, Fall, should repeat the motif “so I’ll fall down at your feet”.
RESISTANCE AND RENEWAL – Jon Kuhrt
Great music really does have a Heineken effect – refreshing the parts that books, talks and speeches never can. I think Andy Flannagan’s new album Drowning in the Shallow has this kind of effect. Its 12 songs are a rich fusion of story and melody. They inspire because Flannagan is willing to explore both the murky areas of our own souls and our hurting world and also shine a light of hope and divine love in this reality. This makes it an authentic and refreshing collection of songs.
Each of the songs tells a story which is earthed in the real world: Fragile is written in the aftermath of the tsunami in Asia; Seven Storeys about a woman thrown to her death from a tower block; I Will Not Be Leaving is about an encounter with an abused and disabled child at orphanage which Andy supports. Rather than simple illustrations of pain going on elsewhere, of a faceless injustice miles away, these songs carry the scars of the pain he has witnessed. They convey the original meaning of the word compassion: to ‘suffer with’.
This is a musical expression of social and political activism. It is the soundtrack of engagement into the messiest and darkest of places.
THE BEDFORD – MAY27TH 2012
There’s an alarm bell ringing, can you hear it?
It’s a Sunday night after a wring-me-out-to-dry week. The journey is long and I arrive late at the Bedford, where Andy Flannagan and his ridiculously talented band are already in full flight. One song in and suddenly I’m feeling more alive than I have done all day.
What follows is an epic evening spanning themes I readily associate with singer/songwriters – finding true love, and those I most certainly don’t – Ugandan orphans and those murdered for their faith. It feels like such a treat to be in the presence of this abundant life, to peek in and live vicariously through this man’s full throttle songs. He’s living life to the full, weeping with those who weep, rejoicing with those who rejoice: make no mistake. And somewhere in all this, he’s found a moment to distil some of these earth-shattering experiences into manageable bite-sized chunks for the rest of us to digest.
But this isn’t delivered as a supercilious lecture. Part of our rambling raconteur’s charm, is that his blistering insights are not solely reserved for others, Flannagan is equally honest and forensic when considering his own frailties. And so we get the lilting, reassuringly jaunty melody of Ego, with lyrics that speak of his struggle with ego when considering marriage, stating plainly “I took so long to realise// That loving equals sacrifice”. *Yeah, I think. Me too. Still struggling with that one.* Up next, two songs with more direct social comment, that draw on their narratives’ country of origin for their musical style: I Will Not be Leaving and Seven Storeys. The first about holding a baby in a Ugandan orphanage that had been abandoned at birth and didn’t respond to hugs and hand holding, it contains the lyrics “How many more like you are still in hiding?// How many more like you are just surviving?// We need an army// To storm this front. //To reach for the broken // And touch the finger of God.” In my head, again the alarm bell rings. *I cry.* The second song is a sparse meditation on the woman whose husband threw her to her death from the seventh floor, after she converted to Christianity in Egypt. What do you do with that information? Cry? Lie down? Try to forget it? Write a song so that more people hear the story? It’s beautiful, gut-wrenching, anger-inducing. And the alarm bell’s ringing just gets louder.
The next stand out moment comes for me when a cover of Alanis Morrisette’s Head Over Feet turns into the chorus of Rihanna’s Umbrella. Don’t mock me too much now… but this song genuinely touches me and I promise I’d not been on the crack pipe. I’ll fess up to the fact it moves me on the most sanguine of days, but hearing it in this context makes me want to weep and dance all at once. I think, *the Ugandan orphans, they can come under my umbrella, ella. The tragically murdered Egyptian lady, or those living and like her, get under the umbrella. Or maybe I can get under theirs?* I’m not being flippant, because, somewhere the truth of “When we shine, we shine together” resonates and shakes me and I think *True dat. What am I going to do about that then? How does everyone get to shine on this drastically unequal planet? We’re here to shine brightly, after all.* Good call Mr Flannagan. The Rihanna cover is quite something. Who knew…
In the second half we are treated to the Keith Green –esque The Reason, a call to get your head out from up your own you-know-where; because, frankly, life is better for everyone then. It utilises strong language to communicate the damage done when our own navels, careers and dreams become the only compass we navigate by, “While you’re waiting, the rich have been raping the poor”. Hard-hitting and prescient, a profound challenge to keep it simple, to choose a life focused on justice, mercy and humility. The brokenness of the human condition seems to be the theme for the second half and Flannagan disarms us in the stunning Fragile, posing one of life’s most painful questions – why does life have to be so fragile? Why? It’s right that this is a question posed, eschewing any easy, saccharine answers. This haunting question becomes the song’s refrain and stays with me long after I leave the gig.
I could go on. It was a deeply affecting and exceptional night. I mean, I could write a thesis on the Rihanna cover alone and that is not normal. But the alarm bell is ringing and calling me to action. The adventure I’m hearing about in these songs, is so appealing, why have an ersatz experience of it, when I could get on the rollercoaster myself? With the woman in Seven Storeys I say “I can not be silent”. What do I do next? Wake up. Wake up, sleepy one and rise from the dead. Make some noise. For everyone’s sake, make some noise, before we all go to hell in a hand cart.
Thank God for Andy Flannagan. Long may he make music that humbly and sweetly kicks our over-fed behinds in to gear.