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Hunting for a Good Tune, April 8, 2011: A smattering of reviews from Driftwood’s editor. The High Kings, Amy Speace, and The Jayhawks.

Welcome to a new monthly-or-more-often column, wherein Driftwood’s editor will give his opinion on a few of the notable releases that come across his desk—or at the very least some releases that I just want to write something about.  These reviews are based on quick, visceral listening sessions with the goal of picking “the tune you must have” from each.

The High Kings
Memory Lane
[EMI (2011)]

Hardcore Celtic fans might sneer at my decision to review this piece. Despite coming across as “the male version of Celtic Women” based on PBS’s decision to air specials featuring the respective groups about the same time,* The High Kings adhere to a sound much more recognizably rooted in genuine tradition. To put it bluntly, the four piece wasn’t chosen just for their looks. The Clancy (Brian Clancy) and Furey (Martin Furey) families are represented, and The High Kings play all the instruments—and well. The Wolf Tones make an appearance to sing “On the One Road.” Their version of “The Rising of the Moon” is excellent. An a capella version of “Red is the Rose” rescues the tune from its frequently sappy, bathetically grand production (even by the Chieftains).

But disc is marred by the kitschy, AM radio adult contemporary-tinged track of their own. A version of “The Irish Rover” that closes the album is a fun listen, but it’s basically indistinguishable from the one done by The Pogues and The Chieftains, minus the irreverence of Shane McGowan. “Indistinguishable” is a concise description of this record. The bulk of it is tired material (“Fields of Athenry,” “Raglan Road,” “Whiskey in the Jar,” “Star of the County Down,” “Rising of the Moon,” “Red is the Rose” . . . I’ll stop listing them now) that would be present on any given “Best Of” collection by some of the singers’ own families.

But this is an album made for people who like show tunes and watch PBS during pledge drive to hear something that would never be played in a pub. So I could be a tiresome anti-pop critic and say, “Grumble grumble can’t we just all listen to bands like Solas grumble,” or I could acknowledge that this CD is simply made for a more casual Celtic music audience.

Jack’s pick: An a cappella version of “Red Is the Rose” showcase’s the group’s vocal strength and winds up being the memorable track on the album.

Amy Speace
Land Like a Bird
Thirty Tigers (2011)

Amy Speace was an artist to watch after her second album, which came out four and a half years ago. Her decision to leave Judy Collins’s label extended the wait for new music and led to the release of a decent but not entirely memorable collection of “rarities” (Into the New: Alternates, Leftovers, and Orphans), otherwise known as “what was left on the cutting room floor.”

A hair more darkness has crept into her music here, and not just because it starts with a song called “Drive all Night.” As an opener, it’s a bit sleepy, perhaps appropriate for a song about driving all night. The ambient reverb laden piano intro to the second (title) track had me worried we were in for a downer. This could be an unfortunate introduction for anyone coming cold to Speace’s music. But Speace, well, sticks the landing in this song, with an upbeat end full of shimmering guitars. From there, the album settles into a push-pull soft coffeehouse material and bluesy/country numbers that toy with getting harder. The simmering restraint creates an exhilarating tension, which just shows that in the right hands, even frustration can become a positive.

Some classic jazzy country, “It’s Too Late to Call it a Night,” breaks things up halfway through. Kim Richey guests—the two are a good paring—and Neilson Hubbard produces, co-writes, and plays half a dozen instruments.

Jack’s pick: “Land Like a Bird,” though not my favorite song on the disc (that’s “It’s Too Late to Call it a Night”), is a wonderful summation of Speace’s work, and packs a lot of emotional punch in a short song.

The Jayhawks
Hollywood Town Hall (Expanded edition)
Tomorrow the Green Grass (Legacy Edition)
[Legacy Recordings (2011)]

The Jayhawks, as a seminal band in the establishment of alt-country as a genre, are deserving of the praise that has been heaped on them throughout the years. The stellar album Tomorrow the Green Grass has a place of honor on my record shelf. But this pair of rereleases from The Jayhawks demonstrate just how important cutting and editing can be in the production of a great CD.

For the longtime listener, the rarities and B sides will be a let-down. The audio quality does not stand up to the albums proper, and many of them will sound more like unfinished tracks than unreleased tracks. I’m not entirely sure how a new listener would react. They might ignore the unreleased tracks and be upset that they were charged extra, or they might leave with a bad taste in their mouth and not pick up any of the band’s other works. That would truly be a shame, because Hollywood Town Hall in its original form, even without a track of its own as monumental as “Blue,” is also a great album.

Jack’s pick: “Blue” is still one of the best things in alt-country, period, and no music collection is complete without it.


*[edit: My first rendering of the High Kings review may have misled some readers to believe that PBS was involved in the album. The album is not associated with PBS. The High Kings special was aired in 2005 and may not currently be running on PBS.]


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