It’s not so long since this feature would have been ‘Top Five Singles’, but the concept of a single seems almost irrelevant outside the Radio 1 bubble and my friends in real radio call them ‘lead tracks’ now, so I’m picking my own lead tracks from some of the albums I’ve reviewed this year. These are five songs that grabbed me at the first listen and left me either elated or emotionally drained. If you don’t listen to anything else I’ve recommended, give these a spin; they all come from good or great albums, but they’re standout examples of superb songwriting, performance and production. They aren’t in any particular order, so where do we start?

Simon Murphy Title“Not in My Name” – Simon Murphy

Simon Murphy’s debut album, “Let it Be”, was released in September of this year and it’s packed with songs that are well-crafted musically and lyrically. “Not in My Name” stands out as one of the simpler songs on the album, but it packs an emotional punch made even more potent by the events of the last few weeks. It could easily be a very angry song, but Simon’s delivery has a much more world-weary feel, hinting at fatigue rather than anger. This is a song that could easily be an anthem but works so well because it doesn’t go down that route.

Hannah Aldridge Title“Parchman” – Hannah Aldridge

This is another song from a debut album. Hannah is from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and her stunning debut album, “Razor Wire” is packed with autobiographical, emotive and often harrowing songs; “Parchman” is an exception. It was inspired by a TV documentary about a woman on death row in Mississippi State Penitentiary (or Parchman Farm) awaiting execution for the murder of her abusive husband. For the first time, her life has a structure and she knows how it will end. I won’t pretend it’s an easy listen, but it’s a superb song. When Hannah played it live at Green Note in July, she told the audience the back story and went on to say that she would probably have taken the same way out of the situation; how many of us would say exactly the same?

Pete_Kennedy_4PAN1TAPK_FINAL_outlined.indd“Union Square” – Pete Kennedy

Pete’s much-anticipated masterpiece “Heart of Gotham” was released this year; the album took about ten years to make as Pete worked on it between various other projects, including albums by The Kennedys, his own guitar album “Tone, Twang and Taste” and work with Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra. The entire album is a fabulous piece of work, and “Union Square”, as the opening song, is a perfect example of Pete’s work. If you can imagine The Byrds fronted by Springsteen, then you probably have a good idea how this sounds. Pete’s crystal-clean guitars contrast beautifully with his rasping vocal delivery as he sings a song packed with literary and historical references to his favourite city. Although the song has an immediate musical impact, each subsequent listen will reveal a lyric that passed you by originally; I can listen to this again and again.

Ed Dupas - 'A Good American Life' - Title“Flag” – Ed Dupas

From the album “A Good American Life”, this is a classic example of a turnaround song (I’m going to admit here that the final two songs will both pull on your heartstrings if you have a heart). Musically, “Flag” is pretty straightforward and the lyrics appear to tell the story of an idyllic American town overlooked by the flag and a hint of patriotism with the refrain ‘red, white and blue till their dying day’. The sting is in the final verse; as soon as Ed sings about the flag being folded, the tone changes and you know that it’s about a dead serviceman and a bereaved family. It still brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it.

Into the Sea“Sally’s Song (I Dreamed of Michael Marra) – Dean Owens

Dean’s latest album, “Into the Sea”, is an intensely personal and nostalgic piece of work, looking back to more innocent times and plotting the erratic courses (sometimes happy, sometimes tragic) of old school friends. “Sally’s Song”, over a Pachelbel’s Canon-style backing, uses the demolition of an old housing scheme as a trigger for memories of old friends doing well and badly. It’s a particularly Scottish song, making references to Billy Mackenzie and Michael Marra and it pushes all of my buttons, every time.

I’ve picked out individual tracks from five albums, but, honestly, you should have a listen to all five albums as well.

 

Pete_Kennedy_4PAN1TAPK_FINAL_outlined.inddLet’s just say this really quickly and get it out of the way. “Heart of Gotham” is a truly exceptional and accomplished album. It’s a genuine labour of love, put together over a period of about ten years by Pete Kennedy when he wasn’t touring with his wife Maura as The Kennedys, producing albums for The Kennedys and Maura as a solo artist, and touring with Maura in Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra. This is the work of an enormously talented musician which taps in to Pete’s knowledge of musical and cultural history and the history of New York City itself.

“Heart of Gotham” is more than just a concept album, it’s a song cycle. It starts and ends in Union Square in the morning and there are elements and themes which recur as Pete declares his love for his city. You can play the album, let it wash over you and just enjoy the outrageously good playing and melodies, but you’ll be missing out if you do, because there are carefully-crafted references in the lyrics that add layers to the meaning of the songs. There’s a strong autobiographical strand running through the piece with references not only to Pete’s life, but also the lives of his ancestors, who came to America as migrants (or possibly more accurately as refugees) from Ireland and helped to build the city.

The album opens with “Union Square”, layers of chiming and shimmering guitars and Pete’s rasping voice setting the scene for the album while reeling off a hugely evocative list of real and fictional characters. It’s a stunning opening to the album with a widescreen feel which hints at early Springsteen and really should be a radio track. “The Bells Rang” is, not surprisingly, a celebratory song. There’s no explicit reference to the subject of the celebration, but references to Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King and ‘the rising son’, suggest the election of Barack Obama in 2008. It’s warm and it’s tremendously uplifting. “Williamsburg Bridge” is partly autobiographical, linking the present to the past and referencing Robert Moses, the architect of much of New York’s landscape; it’s a love song to a partner and to the city.

“Never Stopped Believin’” is part autobiography/part musical manifesto set to a gentle finger-picked guitar backing, while the folky “Unbreakable” again links present to past, this time using Pete’s ancestors and their companions who physically shaped the city. “Rise Above” contrasts a slightly gloomy verse with a lovely harmony-rich chorus, while the mandolin-driven “People Like Me” celebrates the outsiders who can live, thrive and even find each other in the big city. “Harken” contrasts the jangling Roger McGuinn-like guitar with alienation which is an inevitable part of life in a big city while “Asphodel” blends Buddy Holly with Blondie and is packed with literary references delivered at the top of Pete’s tenor range.

“Riot in Bushwick” is the song where Pete finally cuts loose as a guitar player, paying homage to the early electric players like Les Paul and Charlie Christian and it sits somewhere between jazz and early rock ‘n’ roll. The lyrics are humorous, but it’s all about the guitar; Pete plays more inventive fills in this one song than most players can manage in an entire album, and it’s great fun. “New York” looks at the flipside of alienation in the city, a feeling that the city itself, and the people in it can be a healing force, again with a hint of Byrds guitar before we approach the end of the cycle.

Both “Gotham Serenade” and “Union Square (reprise)” explore different facets of the album’s opening track. “Gotham Serenade” opens with some guitar feedback creating a Celtic drone and adds verses which take us into the night in the city, with an extended guitar solo that’s just gorgeous as the second half of the song, and the album closes with a stripped-down reprise of the opening song set at dawn again, but this time it’s the end of the day, and the cycle’s just about to start again.

“Heart of Gotham” is an album you can listen to again and again, and each time you’ll hear something new. Pete Kennedy is a musician, a poet, a philosopher and a scholar who has woven all of those strands into this magnificent creation which evokes the history and soul of New York through its places, its people and its culture. At a time when music is seen by a whole generation as disposable and is often devoid of creativity, Pete has created a work that overflows with ideas (musical and lyrical) and is intensely moving. This is essential listening.

Out on October 16. Available from The Kennedys website.

 

 

 

Dance a Little Closer CoverSo here’s the latest offering from The Kennedys and it’s a live one, whichever way you look at it. It’s another symptom of the ways things are moving in the world of music today that more and more bands are releasing live CDs. It’s so easy to do now that it’s become another part of the tour mechandise package but it can still be something special, immortalising a unique performance in the way that certain live vinyl double albums did in the 70s. “Dance a Little Closer” is one of those albums.

Pete and Maura Kennedy have a long-standing professional relationship and friendship with country singer Nanci Griffith, who brought them together on stage in 1993 as members of her Blue Moon Orchestra and the “Dance a Little Closer” tour was a tribute to Nanci and her songs. The Kennedys took a selection from Nanci’s huge body of work and created arrangements for two voices and two guitars, proving that a great song is great song whether backed by a band or single guitar. “Dance a Little Closer” was recorded towards the end of the American leg of the tour at The Turning Point in Piermont, New York in April 2014.

The pacing of the album is perfect; after the mid-tempo opener, “I Wish it Would Rain”, the slower songs like “Late Night Grande Hotel” and “From a Distance” are mixed up with the medium tempo “Across the Great Divide” and “I’m Not Driving these Wheels”, and the faster, driving, “Love Wore a Halo” and the album’s closer, “Hell No, (I’m Not Alright)”, co-written by Maura and Nanci. “Trouble in the Fields” was written in the 80s, comparing that time to the Great Depression, but seems equally valid in the second decade of the twenty-first century with Pete’s understated intro and solo emphasising Maura’s poignant vocals. “Lone Star State of Mind” is a nostalgic romp through good old Texas memories, while the wistful “There’s a Light Beyond these Woods” is a perfect evocation of a lasting childhood friendship. “Gulf Coast Highway” is another story of ordinary people getting by with some lovely vocal harmonies from Pete which give the chorus a very plaintive edge. “Ford Econoline” is a rockabilly (almost skiffle) run through the story of a housewife leaving everything behind her in Utah to take to the road and a singing career; you can almost hear Pete and Maura grinning at times.

The album’s title comes from a line in “Love at the Five and Dime”, a classic ˊlove conquers allˋ song where the main characters are musicians. Pete’s finger-picking and Maura’s vocal are reminiscent of the first Rickie Lee Jones album (always a plus for me), while the song reminds me slightly of Richard Stekol’s “Yank and Mary” as covered by Iain Matthews (an even bigger plus). It’s a beautiful song and a perfect rendition here. The instrumental and vocal performances throughout the album capture the mood of each song across a range of moods from melancholy through wistful to celebratory. All that with two guitars and two voices.

And then, there’s the songs. As Pete Kennedy’s sleeve notes tell us, these songs are a road map of America, from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico, but they’re also about real American people and issues and they have an impact which goes far beyond three minutes of music. The album’s a limited edition but there are still some copies available on The Kennedys website.