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: Matt Duke – One Day Die

Hi again!

In 2009, I heard Matt Duke‘s music for the first time. With one song from his acoustic album – Acoustic Kingdom Underground – he made me a fan before I heard anything else. That song – “Kingdom Underground (Acoustic)” – merges the beauty of Miltonesque poetry, a beautifully simple pick and strum pattern on an acoustic guitar, and his amazingly expressive voice as it builds and builds. Instead of justifying God‘s side of the story, Duke rewrote it from the Devil‘s standpoint. The Fallen waits for the seventh day when God takes a break. “Evil hides amidst the shade / Evil keeps for evil changes… Woman, please / I can give you what you need / All the answers that you seek / Just pick the fruit right off the tree…”

Since then, I’ve been eagerly waiting to see what Duke’s passion would create next. I listened to the non-acoustic version of Kingdom Underground and was fascinated by his social commentary and the lush arrangements. Most of all though, it was his passion that was evident in all he did. Where would he go next?

I was pleased to see that in One Day Die, that social commentary weaves all the way through the new album. Lost youth and innocence is just the beginning. Could it be the current economy and job market? The lost hopes and dreams of generations young and old? What motivates him to write these impassioned pleas for hope and justice in an imperfect world?

Whereas it was the clean acoustic arrangements that attracted me to his music initially, in One Day Die it’s the mix of acoustic, pop, and rock that conveys yet another level of sophistication this time. Even his use of distortion is a deliberate twist used to illustrate a point in “Kangaroo Court.” He doesn’t overuse such artistic license however, keeping many songs with clean arrangements and beautifully simple musical choices. The duet in “Love You Anymore” weaves guitar, piano, and a steady beat to build and build. Harmonies and intertwined messages speak to the strained feelings of a relationship.

Each song tells a tale and the tales vary widely, from love and broken hearts to life’s injustices. Styles are used not just to offer a soundtrack to the stories, but to reinforce the feel Duke was going for.

Like with “Kingdom Underground,” the lyrics for “Kangaroo Court” tell of Duke’s intelligence behind the scenes. Not only can he perform with passion and talent, but his social commentary cries out amidst the distortion (like he was singing over a loudspeaker or bullhorn)… “It is not your fault / it doesn’t matter / You say objective? I think I know better / You people keep swapping one agenda for another / Give them what they want / it doesn’t matter / I’m in a kangaroo court…” This could be applied to damn near any political scenario we face today and far too many lawsuits clogging our courts.

He follows that up with “Love You Anymore,” which is completely different. A piano and vocal duet with Cara Salimando, this song speaks eloquently about the end of a relationship. “There are two that lie beneath these sheets / it might as well be three with all of the space between… I said ‘I love you’, though I knew I didn’t love you anymore…” A very different Duke here, telling of two lovers drifted apart but not yet aired their decisions to the other. The piano, drums, and guitar along with the pairing of voices tells the story as much as the words themselves.

And “Needle and Thread” tells the story of a road trip to reclaim old glories and heal a broken heart. “For now, the waking world can wait / so sing your blues away / and hope for better days. / Pick an old song and we’ll dance in the dark / it’s that needle and thread to stitch up my broken heart.” This is an upbeat rock anthem I can imagine being heard on many a road trip as we go seeking to fill in the holes left behind by loves lost and the potential of decisions never made.

These three songs “Kangaroo Court,” “Love You Anymore,” and “Needle and Thread” for me show the growth of Matt Duke over the last few years. These are songs sung with passionate about experiences he’s had along the way and they’re just the tip of the iceberg for the album. But though he’s gained experience, he hasn’t lost his talent for weaving intelligent lyrics and different musical styles to tell his stories like a troubadour of old. One Day Die is a great journey from tale to tale and I hope Duke continues to tour, live life, and tell these stories for years to come.

Check out One Day Die at stores on March 29, 2011!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up these great albums below!

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[Music Review] Some Strange Country – Crooked Still

Hi everyone…

Who would have thought that bluegrass music would become a guilty pleasure for me? In the last year, I’ve been learning to love bluegrass and Americana, with that unique combination of strings, hope, and passion among those fiddles, banjos, and harmonies strummed, picked, and sung to express life’s loves and losses and the road between. Some Strange Country is my first exposure to the band Crooked Still, but they’ve been around since the early 2000’s.

Aoife O’Donovan’s expressive vocals are but a part of the composite that forms when this quintet purrs along on all cylinders. Joined by bassist Corey DiMario, banjo player Greg Liszt, cellist Tristan Clarridge and fiddler Brittany Haas, the finger-picking and bow-playing layers add depth and balance that makes even the saddest moments full and emotive. To put it bluntly, these people are amazing.

Some Strange Country features a mix of traditional songs, original works, and a surprising version of the Rolling Stones‘ “You Got the Silver.” Nowhere along the album’s path did the group stray from the classical roots of bluegrass or the skills that brought them where they are today – touring to support the album to be released June 1st, 2010.

I knew I was hooked from the first song “Sometimes in this Country.” As O’Donovan sings… “Sometimes I’m in this country / sometimes I’m in this town / sometimes a thought goes through my mind / that I myself will drown…” accompanied by a gentle banjo melody and string bass that drives this song from beginning to end. Through the song you can hear the other band members playing with the rhythm and melody combinations to add almost a jazz-like playfulness between fiddle, cello, the banjo, and vocal harmonies.

Contrast that with the slow, emotional vocal and instrumental melodies of “Distress,” which evokes a feeling of loss. As a lover of traditional Celtic-sounding songs, this one seems to blend an Irish lilt with the bluegrass to create something not entirely new, but sharing a familiar and comfortable sadness that goes beyond ethnic background or musical style.

My second favorite “Half of What We Know” again merges a steady beat with a melody that rises and falls with a Corrs-style chorus above Liszst’s incredible fingers picking the banjo. With poetic verses like “Your lonesomeness I see / but I know it’s not for me / the mountains all have crumbled to the sea…” I lost myself finding meaning in each poetic line. Each turn of phrase might be interpreted any number of ways, as with much of art – a quality missing from far too much of the music heard on the radio today.

And though I’m not a religious person, there’s a passion and energy to “Calvary” that can’t be denied. From the cello and banjo solos and the vocal harmonies, this song simply rocks and tells the story of Jesus’ final day. Who knew a song about events in the Bible could be so well written and entertaining? “Behold faint on the road ‘neath the worlds heavy load / comes a thorn crowned man on the way / with the cross he is bowed but still on through the crowd / he’s ascending to the hill on the grey…” This is the first song in quite a while (since Matt Duke’s acoustic “Kingdom Underground”) where I’ve felt my spirit moved in ways it rarely goes.

Even if you’re not a bluegrass fan and simply like to hear great words, musical skills and performances, I’d recommend you take a listen to what Crooked Still has to offer. This isn’t Hee-Haw bluegrass, but instead a blending of musical styles and sensibilities around the bluegrass feel. Some Strange Country will remain in my listening queue for quite a while.

Be sure to take a look at the Crooked Still website for information about their tour schedule and previous albums.

–Fitz

p.s. Please check out this album and others from Crooked Still below!

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