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Michael O’Shea - Michael O’Shea Music Album Reviews

Originally released on the UK post-punk group Wire’s label in 1982, this long-lost one-off spotlights a singular busker who made magical music out of a stringed wooden door.

In Albert Camus’ 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, he wrote of modern life: “At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.” Bleak stuff—but the miracle of living in a bustling metropolis is that unexpected, life-changing encounters are possible, too. Take the example of Laraaji, just an unknown street musician busking in Washington Square Park in the late 1970s when Brian Eno dropped a business card in his zither case. Laraaji went on to become one of the luminaries of ambient and new age music.

Not long after, a similar encounter happened at Covent Garden in London’s West End, where the busker Michael O’Shea made the acquaintance of Wire’s Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis. Spellbound by his street-corner performance on a homemade stringed instrument, Gilbert and Lewis told him to drop by the studio anytime. Nearly two years later, O’Shea showed up unannounced; they recorded on the spot. Wire put out the results on their experimental label, Dome, in 1982. It would be O’Shea’s lone release and quickly became scarce. Thanks to Dublin label All City’s AllChival imprint, Michael O’ Shea’s singular music returns, its mystery wholly intact.

O’Shea, who came of age in London in the 1960s, got his start playing harmonica before traveling as a relief worker during the Bangladesh famine crisis of the early ’70s. While there, he contracted hepatitis and dysentery, teaching himself sitar during his convalescence. His nomadic lifestyle took him to Germany, France, and Turkey, where he brushed up against Algerian, Indian, and other strains of music. His travels also led him to sell off all of his instruments, but he came across an old door and set about festooning it with strings to craft a homemade instrument that variously evoked comparison to a dulcimer, zelochord, or sitar. O’Shea played its 17 strings with a pair of chopsticks and ran it all through a battery of effects. He called the thing “Mó Cará,” or “my friend” in Gaelic.

Odd as the man and the instrument might seem, O’Shea wound up with gigs at venerated London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. He brushed shoulders and shared stages with Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane, Rick Wakeman, The The’s Matt Johnson, and Irish post-punk Stano, and even opened for Ravi Shankar at Royal Festival Hall. Outside of a few tracks on Stano’s debut album, little documentation of these encounters survives. (Wakeman apparently scrubbed his contributions from their recording altogether.)

Which leads us to this album, cut at Wire’s studios in a single session on July 7, 1981. The epic opener “No Journey’s End” puts us squarely in the no-man’s-land of O’Shea’s inner world. There’s little else like it. It feels at once orderly and amoebic, moving between chaotic density and calm. It brings to mind Laraaji’s music, but also hints at North African, Indian, and Irish folk idioms while not really seeming to resemble any of them. At best, they reflect how O’Shea might have encountered these styles in his travels, alighting on them before sallying forth into new realms. The piece gives the distinct impression of falling and rising way off the ground. Across its 15 minutes, the struck strings, gentle electronics, and intensifying patterns of the Mó Cará begin to mesmerize like a Spirograph.

The rest of the recording offers up more succinct glimpses into O’Shea’s world, with Gilbert and Lewis switching up the atmospherics surrounding the strings. Cavernous echo and reverb make “Voices” and “Anfa Dásachtach” seem like they are emanating from a submarine, bubbling up from deep underwater. “Kerry” is perhaps the pop iteration of the A-side, a two-and-a-half minute air. “Guitar No. 1” finds O’Shea switching to the titular instrument and conjuring a dark mood on its six strings. One gets the impression that no matter what tool was within O’Shea’s reach, he was liable to set up on any given street corner and strike passersby in the face with cosmic profundity.

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