Philo / Rounder Records, 1998
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/07/1999
There's something comfortable about The Kennedys. Endearing, even.
For a husband-and-wife folk-rock duo operating in the late 1990s, that's a sharp double-edged sword. Chances are slim you're going to win fame and fortune in this flash-and-trash modern world we're stuck in by being comfortable and endearing.
Yet Pete and Maura Kennedy, bless their hearts, behave as though oblivious to the deafening roar of American society's increasing drive to consume itself in a mad whirl of idol worship/destruction and materialistic excess. Consciously, willfully, aggressively oblivious? Maybe so...
In any case, instead of wallowing in all this free-floating negativity, they write coffee-house intellectual songs that celebrate nature, poetry, legends, romance and a sort of latter-day flower-child political philosophy. All the while, they earnestly cite Henry David Thoreau, T.S. Eliot, Anton Chekhov, Rainer Maria Rilke and Czech President Vaclav Havel as sources of inspiration.
It's about as far from the state of modern pop music as you could imagine, which is clearly just fine with The Kennedys, who wear their heavily retro sensibilities on their sleeves (quite literally, in fact -- the "sleeve" photo of this CD shows them sifting through a scattering of classic 60s LPs that includes The Beatles' Rubber Soul and Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited).
The music, you ask?
I'll admit that as a raving fan of The Kennedys's superb 1996 release, Life Is Large -- my favorite release of that year, a sunburst of propulsive, electrified folk-rock, by all means pick it up -- I find myself disappointed by Angel Fire. The overemphasis on midtempo acoustic folk tunes on much of the album diminishes its impact, and the lyrics, while often graced with gorgeous imagery, seem in places overly self-conscious. Somehow the enticing melodies of songs like "Bells & Loaves & Letters" and "A Letter To Emily" are undercut by the preciousness of the words they support -- even as the lack of drive in these softer tunes focuses more attention on the lyrics.
That having been said, there are several stronger tracks here where this duo's secret weapon -- the melding of Maura's delicate yet often soaring lead vocals with Pete's patented channeling-The-Byrds jangly Rickenbacker guitar leads -- is given free reign. "The Fire and the Rose," "Jesse" and particularly the closing "A Place in Time" rock in firm, steady grooves that echo the high points of Life Is Large.
Rather than producing a sequel to that energetic and highly entertaining effort, which fully incorporated a rhythm section and featured a horde of top-rank guest players (Roger McGuinn, Nils Lofgren, Steve Earle), for Angel Fire. The Kennedys chose to hole up in their home recording studio in Virginia and make a deeply personal and reflective album, playing most of the instruments themselves. The results, while spiced up with some creative arrangements and Pete's turns on banjo and mandolin, probably sound more like the acoustic-duo coffee-house shows they clearly prefer to any kind of larger setting, sacrificing impact for intimacy.
The fact that this decision -- whatever my own personal reaction to the results -- was a very intentional one speaks volumes about The Kennedys's mindset: they haven't bought into the pop machine. Fame, fortune and a bigger tour bus don't seem to have the tiniest allure for them. Instead, in the midst of one of the most soul-deadeningly depressing episodes in American political history, working in an industry that over the last forty years has pretty well purged itself of warmth and innocence, The Kennedys have the nerve to remain fundamentally, unabashedly idealistic. And that's a whole lot more than just endearing. Hell, it might even be inspirational.
To learn more about the Kennedys, visit their Web site at www.kennedysmusic.com.