King of the Screen – The Sandrunners

One of Belfast's new Americana powerhouses reveal their first full-length album and we get to grips with the movie-like imagery and stories behind the songs.

Had to listen all the way through a few times before I realised just how much is going on here – and also going in. I’d no idea The Sandrunners are a bunch of local musicians and that they’ve only just begun, figuratively speaking, as a group.

‘King of the Screen’ is their first album launched a few weeks ago in Duncairn, following on from the 2014 EP‘Angel of the Northern Wind’.

And it’s wonderful – truly gifted, clever, insightful and courageous songwriting.

Each song completely different – yet there is a link in my opinion.

These are vignettes – short stories, albeit with one potentially complex and detached protagonist, who unravels and flounders before taking off on a journey of self-discovery, a dark night of the soul, a sort of fear and loathing in Las Belfast.

There is a distinctly cinematic feel, a certain nod to an era of Americana, the late 20s/early 30s, the down-trodden, dust-bowl America of Woody Guthrie, to the West Coast golden age of glamour, faded and jaded.

The soul searching kicks off with ‘Who Are You? Who Am I?’ Some outstanding lyrics in this one. Drunkenly confronting a demon in the mirror – looking him straight in the eye. A conversation ensues – “Who are you? Who am I?” A kind of existential confrontation with a demonic manifestation. Sinister. Spooky. The demon spreads his leathery wings. The demon smiles its scaly smile. He has to leave for a while, but he’ll be back.

Parisienne style, the accordion frolicks mockingly along with the lyrics, and a trumpet heralds either impending doom or redemption as if one trying to outdo the other.

That must have been some night!

After that, our protagonist gives himself a good talking to. ‘Hold Your Head Up’, he reminds himself. A mellow, reflective tune where he just about holding head above water, so he can spread his wings.

Reflective and melodic, with violin and guitar serenading each other.

By the third song, we become completely intrigued by this character.

‘Peeling at the Edges’ suggests that toughened fight for survival, grown weary and wounded.

Harmonies throughout, more insightful lyrics – and wonderful vocals. I am reminded for some reason of Lee Marvin singing ‘I Was Born Under A Wandrin’ Star’ with the harmonies that underlie that.

There is peeling at the edges. There is sorrow in the day. Every morning I must steel my sorry psyche for the fray.

But in the gloom and world-weariness of this tune, there’s room for a little humour:

There is peeling at the edges of what once I called my soul and I can’t begin to ever reason why. I know it can’t be cured by sex or drugs or rock n roll and heaven knows I’ve given them a try.

All this combines to make our anti-hero even more interesting, a psyche worth probing further, for his heart is waiting once again to heal.
The drama unfurls in ‘Speakeasy Polka’ – over five minutes of glorious decadence.

Hear that accordion, mandolin, and ukulele tease and please. Bohemian in theme, low cut tops, rouge, lipstick – but our protagonist is in a loner state of mind when all around is the sound and vibe of the waxed and the wicket whirling round and round into a state of dizzy, frenetic rhapsody.

The accordion continues to mock – as if it’s following him around cajoling, a cruel and taunting joker, the music and words juxtapose so clearly here to conjure up images and themes for the big screen.

This is a very clever album. Rolling along to the title track ‘King of the Screen’, when all the colours are fading and all the lights have gone down.

A sad and lonely man in the 19th row watches old black and white movies, lamenting the loss of his two best friends, Fame and Fortune. Where have all the good times gone – they murdered the movies with sound? Trumpet, piano, snare drum, and at the end, the fading whirr of an old cinema projector. Magical.

The sweeter side shines through in ‘Sure Of Me’. A song for a small child, opening with harmonies, jaunty xylophone, and a sunshiny vibe – a sharp contrast to ‘Who Are You? Who Am I?’ So rather refreshingly, it’s not all darkness and plight.

All of these tracks on ‘King of the Screen’ burn the brain and leave their stamp. Two in particular stand out. Our wild and wanton protagonist gets wistful and reflective towards the end.

‘All of the Things’ beautifully rakes up reminiscences. A gentle nod to nostalgia, when life was simple, when our greatest joys were sharing a cuppa and chinwag, or watching Top of the Pops from the settee. When family was closely-knit and home was all the comfort we’d need. I am reminded of Deacon Blue here. This song gave me a knot in my tummy and I got something in my eye.

Then he catches himself on – reminds himself ‘Don’t Look Back’. Brush yourself down, pick yourself up and move on. Distinctively country-rock, a touch of the Eagles here for sure.

‘Burns Blue’, is one of those achingly melodic, reflective sad songs – another beautiful tune. Who hasn’t woken up and wanted to pull the covers overhead and hide?

Upbeat at the end, with a real rollicking, rootsy Americana vibe, taking us all the way across the USA. ‘Steel Dan’ also turns on the jazz era of the Charleston, the deep south, the dust bowl – rolling coast to coast – all the way across the USA. Sing along, clap along – a fine finale to watch the credits roll. Bravo!

It took a few listens to fully grasp what’s going on with ‘King of the Screen’ but I had some fun with this one, once I’d cottoned on (rightly or wrongly, maybe just in my head) that this was a story-book, a movie script, threaded together with great musicianship.

Last word: John McLaverty’s vocals are outstanding. Please listen to this, and go see them next time they’re around your way. I sure will.