Closer Than You Know

The Kennedys

Independent release, 2012

http://kennedysmusic.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/31/2012

How you react to the latest disc from husband-and-wife duo The Kennedys will probably depend a lot on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for delicate, airy folk-pop featuring a beautiful female lead voice and bright, uncluttered music, you’re in the right place.

If however, you’re a Kennedys fan from way back who thought 1996’s jangly, propulsive power-pop opus Life Is Large was one of the better indie discs of that decade, you may feel a bit let down. There’s little pop here, and even less power.

The Kennedys have been making music together for the better part of two decades now, since aspiring Austin, Texas singer Maura met guitarist Pete while he was on the road with Nanci Griffiths. The intervening years have seen them issue 10 studio albums while touring steadily, nurturing a modest but faithful following for their unabashedly sincere tunes.

Closer Than You Know’s opening track “Winter” more or less defines the word “airy” with a circular, strummed acoustic guitar pattern, layered background vocals and Maura’s breathy lead vocals blanketing the top of the gauzy mix. With “Rhyme And Reason,” the production is more straightforward, but only serves to underscore the heart of my problem with this disc: a song so precious it lacks even a hint of grit or fire. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

It’s not that the edges have been sanded off this music; there simply aren’t any edges at all. Moving through the next few tunes (“I’ll Come Over,” “Cradle To A Boat,” “Sigh”), you get the sense that the duo has veered fully into new age / easy listening territory, sounding more like Judy Collins than the Byrds. There’s a place in the world for this kind of delicate, understated music, to be sure—it’s just not what I personally am looking for when I put on a Kennedys record.

“Home” goes for a haunting quality, as Maura’s undeniably gorgeous vocals float above a synth wash, but the song never achieves any kind of momentum; it just flows and flows and ends. “Marina Dreams” adds rhythm and texture—there’s even a bit of country-western giddy-up in Pete’s rhythmic guitar playing—but ultimately this feels as precious and sing-songy as “Rhyme And Reason.”

At this point I’m starting to wonder if perhaps the tail may be wagging the dog, musically. The Kennedys have never been in a position to tour regularly with a band; they’ve almost always gone on stage as an acoustic duo—and Closer Than You Know features a lot of songs that would translate relatively easily to that live format. Have their songwriting and arranging choices gone in an easy listening direction because that’s what works in their live configuration? This suspicion grows when Pete switches to electric for “Made Of Sand,” yet the arrangement remains minimalist. 

Ironically, the duo deliver a tribute to power-pop icon Alex Chilton (“Big Star Song”) that arrives in the form of a gentle folk-pop tune (is there even a kick-drum on this album?). It’s followed by what’s probably the album highlight, a sparkling country-folk cover of U2’s “Wild Honey.” Closing things out, “Winter Lies” finds Maura harmonizing with herself, a pretty effect, but for this listener it simply emphasized what an insular, languid album this is.

My own hopes and expectations for this album obviously colored my reaction to Closer Than You Know.  It’s definitely true that your mileage may vary—I can only report that mine fell short of where I was hoping to go.

Rating: C+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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