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Mike Ireland and Holler

Learning How to Live – 1998 (Sub Pop)

Reviewed by Stuart Munro

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CDs by Mike Ireland and Holler

Although Mike Ireland and Holler are likely to be thrown in with that movement du jour, alternative country, judging by their debut, there is little doubt that they regard what's going on here as country music, pure and simple. It certainly sounds like a country record, from Ireland's expressive singing, to his and Holler's playing, to - most definitely - his songs (although they tend to concentrate almost exclusively on the hurtin', cheatin' side of thing).

Yet, although there is plenty here that might call to mind what is usually regarded as "traditional" country music, there is also ample, unapologetic referencing of a one-time and continuing bete noire of the hard core aficionado - that being the use, on almost a third of the songs, of strings. Those who would automatically reject this as saccharine, countrypolitan excess would do well to actually listen to those strings and what they contribute, however; on "House of Secrets," for example, the strings add exactly the right amount of menacing backdrop to the song, while they intensify the feeling of loss and despair on "Christmas Past." And with or without strings, on every track this record exudes a certain confidence and accomplishment making it hard to believe it's a first effort.

Mike Ireland and Holler have produced exactly what they set out to make: a fine country record.