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DANNY ELLIS REVIEW BY Niall Stokes, Editor of “Hot Press”
800 VOICES (Dara Records) 41/2 of 5 stars800

800 VOICES (Dara Records) 41/2 of 5 stars800 Voices was originally released last year to very positive reviews, but little commercial action. It’s now been picked up by Dara Records and re-released – an inspired move, because the album was in danger of becoming one of the lost classics of contemporary Irish music. Written and performed by a man in his sixties, who sounds not dissimilar to Christy Hennessy at times, you could say that it is terminally unhip, the kind of thing that people who think they know it all dislike without ever listening to. Well f***’em. I can imagine the very different, more contemporary sounding record it might have been, in terms of arrangements and production but no matter: this is a great record that tells an extraordinary story and does so with heart stopping honesty and emotion. Danny Ellis was sent to Artane industrial school at the age of 8 and spent 8 years there, and the songs on this album draw on that experience in rich colours and finely wrought detail. Terrible things happened in Artane, but that is not the immediate focus of this record. Because while he was there, in music Danny Ellis discovered the thing that enabled him to survive the loneliness, the poverty, the grief, and the brutality of the impossibly harsh regime imposed by the Christian Brothers. There are funny songs that evoke the madness of the place and time like “The Treasure of the Sons”, a brilliant sustained lyrical riff about the cheapjack toys that were borrowed, stolen, and bartered among the boys, and even better, the fantastically moving “Who trew da boot?”, which is up there with the great Pogues and Christy Moore yarns put to music: the second time I listened to it, the astonishing accuracy of the picture it painted had me in tears of both laughter and devastation. “Kelly’s Gone Missin” is about a boy who made good his escape, and the alarms it sets off in what was a kind of prison, as the Brothers “gathered a posse/and off they went runnin”. “Excuses” captures perfectly the daft stuff dredged up by boys in fear of the lash, and their snarling dismissal by the Brothers. But in it, also, is a poignant evocation of the inner turmoil that speaks in ways that a child cannot control: “There’s always another/Is that what you gave/To your father and mother/Excuses/As you empty your bladder/At night in the bed/And you lie in the wet of/Excuses”. 800 Voices is full of marvelously crafted songs, packed with superb lyrical twists and turns and moments of wonderful insight. “The Twist Within The Tweed” offers a powerful metaphor for the anger that comes later, about being abandoned. The title track reveals with admirable empathy, and respect, how a battered trombone presented by Brother Joe O’Connor became a lifeline, as Danny was invited to join the Artane Boys Band. And “When Tommy Bonner Sang” is something else again: utterly, spell-bindingly beautiful, and deeply moving, it is a song about the way in which those who are lost can find themselves in the sweet sanctity of melody. I could go on: there isn’t a song on 800 Voices that falls short. “The Artane Boys Band” describes with a dash of humour the agonizing scene on a trip to New York, where Danny finally meets his father: “Well he took the day off work/As he marched along beside us/A sad little man/Well I played so bloody loud/I nearly blew the Guiness from his hand”.” And the finale, “The Day I Left Artane”, in which the 16 year old discovers for the first time that the McIvors, twins that he has known only as inmates, are in fact his own brothers, hits you like a Mike Tyson uppercut. What sort of culture was it – what sort of a country was it – that we did this to children? In the end, as a kind of coda, on an album that is notable for the generosity of its perspective, there is room for anger. “Yeah they shattered our bodies”, Danny sings on “Innocence Back”, “And they scattered our minds/And they broke us and bent us/Till we were twisted as twine/Then set us all loose/Like rats from a sack/Now there’s no amount of money/Gonna buy us our innocence back.” No indeed. But Danny Ellis has turned the base metal of that raw experience into a very fine piece of art. An essential Irish album.


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