Not so long ago, the Pogues were an unruly acoustic mob roughing up traditional Irish and English songs for the amusement of bored London clubgoers. The Pogues are still an unruly mob, but they now follow a tradition of their own making. Spearheaded by singer Shane MacGowan’s ruggedly poetic songs and lurching street-corner delivery, the group’s persuasive blend of folk, rock, and ethnic music — frequently given to bizarre stylistic detours — is unmistakably original.
For better and worse, Hell’s Ditch is one of those detours. The half-dozen examples of standard Pogues pop — an onrushing string-band commotion of banjo, accordion, tin whistle, and rock group — are every bit as invigorating as last year’s hard-to-equal Peace and Love. But the album’s exotic, cinematic adventures are less consistent. Over slow-moving music that could be the soundtrack for a spaghetti Western set in a Greek restaurant, the title track recounts a violent scene of prisons and killers. The inclusion of sinuous Middle Eastern accents in a tense folk ballad is more distracting than inspiring. Shifting gears, ”Summer in Siam” is performed on cocktail-lounge piano, saxophone, and harp. Even after returning to familiar turf with the Dylanesque ”Five Green Queens and Jean,” the Pogues end the album with an eerie, faintly African chant. While many of these travels are well worth the audio visit, the best songs on Hell’s Ditch stay close to home. B