The Kennedys, songs of the OPEN ROAD (Appleseed Recordings, 2006)

A couple of years ago, before a Sam Phillips concert at Joe's Pub in New York City, I got into a long discussion of music with a couple sitting at my table. We discussed the influences in Ms. Phillips' music, various world music acts we'd discovered, and the sorry state of commercial radio. After the show as I got up to leave, the woman introduced herself as Maura and the man as Pete. It didn't occur to me until I was outside that I had been sitting with the folk-rock duo The Kennedys. I guess I validated a point Pete made during our conversation about how hard it is to get noticed these days. As an avid fan of sixties rock who's played a 12-string guitar for nearly twenty years, I'm more or less The Kennedys' target audience, and I failed to recognize them while sharing a table and some conversation with them over several hours. Oops, my bad.

An oddity in music in that they've successfully balanced their marriage and a recording career for over a decade, Pete and Maura Kennedy are unrepentant believers in the power of rock and roll in its purest form. They tend to wear their influences on their sleeves even in their original compositions, but for their latest album songs of the OPEN ROAD, they decided to pay tribute to their favorite singers and songwriters directly with an album of covers. The writers covered range from fairly big stars like Bob Dylan and Stephen Stills, to less known but highly regarded performers like Nick Lowe and Jimmy Webb, to more recent voices like Victoria Williams and Nanci Griffith, to writers like the late Dave Carter who should be much better known than they are.

While I knew the names of all the writers, I was only really familiar with the original versions of two of the songs on this CD. The first of these is the classic Byrds' song "Eight Miles High." Given the complexity of the song, and the way it captures a particular moment in music and popular culture now forty years past, this was a very risky choice of songs. Pete maintains the intricacy of the original guitar arrangement while making it sound a bit more polished and less ominous. This might scandalize some people, but I think The Kennedys are trying to make the point that the song holds up even without the psychedelic underpinnings. Their version sounded fine to me on the whole, the glaring absence of the major seventh in the vocal harmonies notwithstanding. The other familiar song, and the real highlight of the album for me, was Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." The song's dark imagery holds up spectacularly well in the present -- a little too well, in fact, but that's hardly the fault of the song. Pete does a brilliant job of layering track after track of guitars and other guitar-like instruments under Maura's lead vocals, and the earnestness and passion in the singing and playing intensify beautifully as the verses get longer and longer. Unlike Edie Brickell's more familiar cover, which always felt watered down to me, The Kennedys' version has just the right amount of bite to it.

Not being familiar with the remaining songs, I could treat the rest of songs of the OPEN ROAD as an album of back-to-basics, no-frills acoustic guitar rock with some quality songwriting. Like I always say when I'm discussing Tom Petty's music, whatever strange places my musical wanderings may take me, there will always be room for music like this in my CD collection. I particularly liked Dave Carter's "Happytown (All Right With Me)." Carter's melodies frequently shine with a childlike happiness even when the tone of the lyrics is a bit more nuanced, and this song is a perfect example of that. The Brazilian feel of Stephen Stills' "Pretty Girl Why" and the fervent gospel of Mahalia Jackson's "I'm On My Way" provide some healthy diversity to the collection as well.

I suppose The Kennedys could be criticized for being so in awe of their influences that they don't really distinguish themselves musically from them. They can be forgiven for that, though, because their taste is impeccable. songs of the OPEN ROAD is a reverential collection of quality songs from some of the best writers in the folk and rock genres, and The Kennedys do a fine job performing them. The album will definitely appeal to fans of acoustic rock, especially if they have a soft spot for 12-strings. And if you're one of those people, find a picture of Pete and Maura and take a good, long look. You just might meet them at a show some day, and they deserve to be recognized.

Overall grade: B+

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2007 The Green Man Review


digitaldoc said...

If you didn't recognize them, what hope is there for the rest of us?

smg58 said...

That's kind of why I still feel guilty about it.

digitaldoc said...

On the other hand, maybe it was a good thing so that you could just have a relaxed conversation, and speak your mind without any pressure.