JAMES KEELAGHAN – Second-Hand (Borealis Records BCD276)

Second-HandJames Keelaghan’s Second-Hand is yet another collection of brilliant songs that, somehow, ventures into a folk music fourth dimension where hope, tragedy, psychological insight, literary metaphor, and intense beauty are compressed into a continuous magical melody.

For the initiate: Canadian James Keelaghan is a Juno Award winner. Not only that, but on a personal note, he kindles the very same passionate fires as (the sadly late) Stan Rogers, in both songwriting insight and emotive vocal depth.

Big compliment!

The first two songs are up-beat folk tunes. ‘Walk On’ is a piano and organ pulsed call to (very necessary!) arms. This a big melodic clarion call to take action “until we all get home”, with a really nice touch of a gospel soul. Then, ‘Second-Hand’ moves the camera lens to a more personal touch that suggests a retreat into a natural world where “a picture doesn’t do it justice”. But the song is such a welcome invite, like Thoreau’s Waldon, its joy speaks with universal wisdom.

And then things get really interesting. ‘La Cattiva Strada’ is an odd collection of vignettes that traces various characters on “a long and crooked road to ruin”. But, (Thank you Wikipedia!) the song takes its theme from a song by Fabrizao de Andre, which presents the “wrong way”. Of course, this is deep stuff that suggests that, perhaps, “Is the wrong doing wrong, or is it a way to perceive what should be right”. This is a deep river dive. The lyrics are a lovely mind-boggle.

As my friend, Kilda Defnut, said, “Thanks for the nice melody, but I doubt anyone will sing this one around a ‘Kum by yah’ campfire!”.

Ditto for the psychological confession of ‘Just A Letter’, which is a brilliant song (of two letters, actually); the first has “that bastard’s name with a request for parole”, while the response carves with raw ink a victim’s dark memory of random violence into a letter that bleeds a hope that “he dies there”.  Sometimes, the best stories don’t need to fill in the details, as this tune evokes a skeletal horror. But, with sad indifference, the ending throws justice to an inconsequential whim of an indifferent universe.

Oh my—and this is tough and sublime songwriting, ‘Before The Morning Sun’ is a simple tale of a farmer whose land is taken by the bankers “after two dry years” and that farmer’s “thousand freight trains running through my mind” revenged rage results in the murder of that banker, which, of course, just happens to have that huge ‘La Cattiva Strada’ moral dilemma enigma wrapped in a really wonderful folk song riddle. And the song dives into the murky moral depths and tragic judgements of Melville’s ‘Billy Budd’ or ‘Benito Cereno’. This is great literary stuff that seldom graces the odd folksinger song.

And just so you remember: Woody Guthrie once sang, “Some rob you with a six-gun/And some with a fountain pen”.

And just so you also remember: Years ago, in his song ‘Kira’s Piano’ (from his My Skies album) JK wrote, “If we must be free/Then sometimes we must sacrifice to gain our dignity”. This theme runs through much of this album, in aged oaken tree rings circled years with fresh dark wisdom.

Then, ‘Gave It All Way’ completes that circumference, with the sad, gentle, and pained reverie of lost love. And ‘Eulalie’ is a beautiful thought of intense youthful passion that’s long gone. It’s an island of unfulfilled wind – like that “Road Less Travelled” Robert Frost conjured in his sad autumnal memory of all that has been lost.

In contrast (because the music of JK is always about varied perspective), ‘Alberta’ is just a song of immense beauty that rivals the best of any Gordon Lightfoot song. The same is true for ‘Gathering Storm’. Indeed, “Don’t bow down to the powers that be”.

That’s yet another big compliment. And by the way, “Trust in love and do no harm”.

The final song, ‘The Benefits Of Surrender’, finds even more of those aged oaken tree rings circled years with dark wisdom. The brief confessional tune is a hymn to “windows” in preference to “building walls”. Yeah, that’s folk music fourth dimensional stuff where hope, tragedy, psychological insight, literary metaphor, and intense beauty are compressed into a continuous magical and always lovey Second-Hand melody.

Bill Golembeski

Artist’s website: https://keelaghan.com/

‘Second Hand’: