Music Review: Steaćn Hanvey РSteaćn Hanvey and the Honeymoon Junkies

Hi all!

As a child of the 70s with parents who listened to folk songs, I often fall back that musical orbit. And lately I’ve been encouraged by the new artists who bridge the gap between traditional folk (even down to some of its Bluegrass and Blues roots) and rock-and-roll. With artists like Wes Kirkpatrick, the Indigo Girls and Matt Duke, I’m able to enjoy folk music while not giving in completely to my folkie roots. (Yes, it’s a minor rebellion but I’ll accept that!)

But let me introduce you to Steaƒán Hanvey. Hailing from Dublin, Ireland, he brings a gift for rich arrangements, storytelling, and a voice you want to believe has lived those stories. As I listened to Steaƒán Hanvey and the Honeymoon Junkies, I was reminded of other artists such as James Taylor and Donovan as well as more modern folks like David Gray and Matthew Mayfield. His easy style with lyrics and guitar make him seem very genuine. I suspect that if I get a chance to listen to Hanvey live, I’m not going to want the concert to end.

Steaƒán Hanvey and the Honeymoon Junkies was released in Europe a while ago, but is just now coming to the U.S. Hanvey has even moved here to focus on building an audience while traveling back and forth to Ireland occasionally. Over the last 3 years, he’s also been working on his sophomore album called Nuclear Family that is due out in 2012. But don’t let that stop you from checking out Honeymoon Junkies.

What caught my attention while listening to the Honeymoon Junkies is the effortless way Hanvey tells his stories and finds just the right musical style to go with it… It starts with a simple rhythmic guitar intro in “Rooms,” transitions to the upbeat ballad “My Woman (Ode To You),” moves to the anthem-ish “Love’s A Decision,” flows through the hard-edged “Desperation,” and eventually ends with the James Taylor-ish “Show Me”…

And as I listened, there were more than a few that I’d have to tag as favorites, the first of which being “Love’s a Decision.” This one should be required listening at any couple’s therapy session. “Love’s a decision between you and me / not some half-baked scene from a movie screen… if you want it to last / you’d better let go of the past.” And I don’t know who’s singing in the background, but she has an amazing voice that completely complements Hanvey’s with the anthem guitar riffs and solid bass/drum beat.

“Fair Weather Friend” on the other hand feels like something from Colin Hay and I love the guitar riffs. This one tells the story about a guy who lost his way, finds his way back again, only to wonder how others see him. I interpret the story as someone coming back from alcohol or drug use and finding that some folks don’t like who they see when someone is sober. But I’m thankful whatever Hanvey’s story is for this song, that he came back with a “head full of songs” as he says. And I hope when something happens to me or someone else I’m not a fool or a fair weather friend… sticking through thick and thin.

In “Desperation,” he breaks the song mold a bit and it works. It starts with a vaguely Australian/digeridoo-ish funky beat that leads to a story about a relationship gone wrong. This is a darker tune telling the story of a man who knows it’s over, but she’s the one pulling away. “You will blame me and you’ve tried to shame me / What more could I do…” It’s interesting to me that it feels vaguely uncomfortable to listen to this one, like we’re voyeurs in some lover’s quarrel.

Check out the video for “Desperation”:

Then he turns it completely around with a tune you can’t help but smile while listening to… “Everything’s Happy” shifts to everything bright and cheery, but it has a hidden message. The rhythm of the guitar along with the acoustic bass in the background keeps it light and moving along quickly where you hardly have time to think anything but happy thoughts… “The sun changed it’s mind / decided to shine on my day / The girl on the street never misses a beat and she smiles as I catch her eye…” And a bit later there’s the dark side: “Everyone’s happy / Everyone’s ok / Everyone’s looking for someone to blame.”

Steaƒán Hanvey has a way of making the music fit the lyrics that isn’t forced or created by some crowded room of movie producers. Every song on Steaƒán Hanvey and the Honeymoon Junkies tells a story and I for one enjoyed the ride. I’m already looking forward to his next album – Nuclear Family – sometime next year! For tour news and everything else Hanvey-related, be sure to check out his web site SteafanHanvey.com.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Loreena McKennitt – The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Hi all!

Celtic music has always called to me. At first I found Enya (Watermark is still my favorite) and that led to Clannad (Dulaman). Then I found Loreena McKennitt (The Visit) and Solas (Sunny Spells & Scattered Showers). Whether it’s a jig, a reel, or a ballad… Whether there are lyrics or it’s purely instrumental… They all seem to call to the distant parts of my Irish heritage.

When I first heard Loreena in college, I fell in love with “All Souls Night” and “Between the Shadows” on The Visit. The rise and fall of her voice in conjunction with the eerie lyrics evoked images of spirits dancing to commemorate the end of one season and the beginning of another. But even more than her voice, the way she constructs her songs with traditional instruments and intricate arrangements is what’s kept them floating around in my head for nearly twenty years.

The Mask and Mirror had a slightly different feel, going with more of a Spanish/Arab sound. And The Book of Secrets was the last album I picked up of hers. The song “The Mummer’s Dance” received a ton of airplay in the late 1990s and it seemed to pander a bit to pop sensibilities. It didn’t help that when the movie Ever After came out starring Drew Barrymore, the song was used in a trailer for the film. With the saturation of both radio and television, I lost track of her music after that.

That brings me to this year, when I heard she was releasing an album that went back to her roots and more of a Celtic/Scottish feel. The Wind That Shakes the Barley was the result. And though it’s still not my favorite album of hers, it has renewed my interest in her music again.

Though the album is filled with traditional Celtic songs, I have to admit that I’d only heard one – “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” – which had been done in a version I love by Solas and another by Dead Can Dance. These songs range from “Down By the Sally Gardens,” which is based on a poem by William Butler Yeats and “The Parting Glass” and “The Star of the County Down,” both traditional Irish songs… to an original instrumental from McKennitt called “The Emigration Tunes.”

This album seems to be a return to slower, more methodical tunes, rather than the more upbeat songs that encourage you to dance. “As I Roved Out,” “Brian Boru’s March” and “The Star of the County Down” are the faster songs on the album, though none approaches the determination and speed of some of her earlier works. That said, “Brian Boru’s March” is among my favorites of the album, with its gentle instrumental rise and fall. I couldn’t help but imagine a crowded floor of people waltzing in their finest clothes in an earlier, simpler time.

But it’s the title song of the album – “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” – that really captured my attention. This isn’t Solas’ quicker version, which infectiously makes me want to dance (and nobody really wants to see that). Loreena has slowed it down and made it almost creepy with the ambient music in the background. It’s more than ambient and enhances the melody in strange ways. And the violin beautifully evokes the sadness of the subject matter… the loss of one’s true love.

I’m glad that McKennitt has returned to her old form. The Wind That Shakes The Barley restores my hope that beside all the pop noise on the radio, classically-inspired music still has a place in the world. Be sure to check it out at your local or online music store.

For more about her life and music, check out her website at QuinlanRoad.com – the site for her private record label, Quinlan Road.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great music below!

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DVD Review: Standing with Stones

Hi there!

How many stone monuments do you think are in the British Isles? Any guesses? What would you say if you learned that there were nearly 1,000 stone circles in the U.K.? What if I told you that if you added the other monuments, such as stone rows, long barrows, cairns, standing stones, and so on, you’d end up with tens of thousands of monuments?

I was shocked too. The popular media has made us think that Stonehenge is the only big stone monument in the Isles, but there’s obviously much more than that.

With Standing with Stones, writer and presenter Rupert Soskin hopes to share his knowledge and fondness for these mysterious places. A renowned naturalist and writer, Soskin has been exploring the stone monuments most of his life and has a few theories to share. But even with his theories and those he relates from other archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians — we just don’t know enough about these sites to tell how they were used or why they were built.

Some of the monuments have astronomical significance, built to predict the winter and summer solstices or the position of the sun, moon, and stars. Others are remnants of objects used by the Romans to measure distance, like the London Stone which has been used to denote the center of London for measurements. But most of them are complete unknowns.

Throughout the documentary, Soskin takes viewers on a tour of more than 100 monuments scattered across England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the smaller islands of the U.K. It took Soskin and documentarian Michael Bott more than two years, living in a camper-van for a month at a time, as they traveled thousands of miles recording footage.

Was the journey worth it? Definitely. Whereas nature documentaries such as Planet Earth have stunning high definition video of living creatures inhabiting the planet, Soskin and Bott somehow managed to capture the amazing natural beauty of these stone sites in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Breathtaking shots of landscapes dotted with these neolithic, bronze, or iron-age monuments left me wanting to hop on a plane and visit them myself.

And Soskin’s presentation weaves humor, humility, and intelligence together as he provides some context for these sites. It’s obvious that he has a passion for them and wants to share it. And he does a wonderful job as our congenial, informative tour guide.

That said, it’s the cinematography that sticks with me. Yes, I listened and learned quite a bit about these many sites I’d never even heard of. But the brilliant shots in daylight, fog, or even the dead of night are simply amazing.

When you add in cool computer-generated graphics of the theories discussed, including how some of the sites may have looked before the stones were removed for other purposes along with the entertaining presentation and beautiful high definition video, you have an amazing experience lasting more than two hours.

My only complaint about the DVD is the gaps between chapters of the documentary itself. I don’t know if it was my DVD player or the way the disc was made, but there were gaps of a few seconds where the picture would go black as it loaded the next chapter.

In addition to the documentary itself, you get quite a large number of extras.

Stonehenge - England
Image by elicrisko via Flickr

The “Interview” included provides a great deal of background from Soskin and Bott on the making of the film. The project has been in the works since 2001 and the duo discuss how it came to be and their goals for the film.

The “Outtakes” feature includes a number of bloopers caught while filming. Soskin, like any other narrator or actor, sometimes takes several tries before getting a line right. It’s obvious his sense of humor helps him through those rough patches.

Some “Unseen Footage” shows some of the clips cut from the film while they shot it. It was very interesting to see the camera work and how weather affected their shots.

The “Original TV Pilot Film” that was made in 2001 is included on the DVD. Originally the Soskin and Bott’s idea was for a number of short segments on television. But after they shot the first 10 minute film, they decided that it was untenable due to schedules and weather. Instead, the duo took it upon themselves to write, shoot, and edit the film.

Also included is a short trailer for the film, a slide show with 72 slides covering the making of the film, and commentary from Soskin and Bott.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about some of the stone monument mysteries of the British Isles, Standing with Stones is a great way to learn more. In addition, the high definition video provides a beautiful way to tour parts of the U.K. without actually getting a plane ticket!

For more information about the film, be sure to check out the Standing with Stones website.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up your copy of the DVD and the companion book at Amazon:

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