In recent weeks, I’ve heard several artists who have reminded me of the late great John Stewart, making me think that definite reissue series or box set is well overdue. The thought comes to mind again listening to this latest offering from New Yorkers Pete and Maura Kennedy, a UK and Ireland only release to celebrate their 20th anniversary. Not because they sound remotely like Stewart, but because they have included a cover of one of his classic songs, ‘The Queen of Hollywood High’, albeit Maura giving it a rather sweeter, poppier treatment than the rockier, rougher-voiced original.
But then sweet and poppy pretty much epitomises the duo’s approach to their roots country music, thought the fact they’re not raw or raunchy doesn’t mean they’re middle of the road (in the worst Nashville sense), rather than their melodies are go down easy, leading to much tapping of feet. As per the title, the album is, as the press release states, “an evocative picture of the duo’s two decades of travel down the highways and byways of America”, conjured here in the old time gospel stomp of ‘Bodhisattva Blues’, ‘Locket’ with its Buddy Holly cascades, the rock ‘n’ roll choogling ‘Travel Day Blues’ (which references Dot Love, the Mississippi Blind Boys and Nat King Cole), the bluegrass and banjo shades of ‘Elegy’ (a tribute to the late “post-modern mythic American folk music’ singer Dave Carter) and the early Johnny Cash meets the Kingston Trio feel of ‘Southern Jumbo’ and its ode to cooking and singing.
There’s no brooding clouds over their landscape, indeed on the sleeve notes to the gently jogging ‘Jubilee Time’ they state that they decided the songs would be ‘uplifting, encouraging and hopefully empowering, acknowledging the dark but holding out a spark.’ The call and response ‘Sisters of the Road’, which features Tracy Grammar (Dave Carter’s former singing partner) among the back up harmonies, and Pete’s love song to his wife, ‘Good, Better, Best’, in the style of the Everlys, are further testament.
There’s strong folk influences here too in two traditional-coloured, numbers, the nature-themed ‘Signs’ and ‘Black Snake, White Snake’, an adaptation of a short story by the poet B.D.Love about two sister snakes who shift to female form and one you could hear Steeleye Span covering. At which point, I should note that Maura will further exploring the lyrics of Love on her own upcoming solo album, ‘Villanelle’ (Pete has his own solo album, ‘Heart of Gotham’, due too). Of course, you can’t get away without some Byrdsian 12 string jangles, here perfectly embodied in ‘Perfect Love’, a new number penned for them by John Wicks, former frontman of the criminally undervalued British 80s power-pop outfit The Records. It’s not an album to shake the foundations or push borders, but if you enjoy good melodies, fine singing and thoughtful songs, that’s how the West was won.
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Artists’ website: http://www.kennedysmusic.com/