The Kennedys - River of Fallen Stars (1995) Reviews:
River Of Fallen Stars Pete and Maura Kennedy A review for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange by Judi Green (JudiLem@aol.com)
This album can't be reviewed (at least by me) without reference to the reviewer's age and era. As I listened to the CD, the music and vocal style evoked Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, and a more delicate Peter, Paul, and Mary - candles and incense...wall hangings made from Indian bedspreads...the smell of a certain illegal substance. The artists mention as their influences The Byrds, the Everly Brothers, and Roy Orbison.
Pete and Maura Kennedy state in the liner notes that these songs were written during their tour of the British Isles. They were especially influenced by Irish "melody and lyricism", leading them, in this album, to place the more importance on the sound of words and on imagery than on meaning.
Several of the songs are especially rich in visual and aural imagery such as, "And the jangle dreams and the red guitars/Flow like a river of fallen stars" (River of Fallen Stars), or "Silent riders/bridge of visions/ Midnight lanterns/Gleaming". Other songs that showcase their ability to create a sense of place include the list of street names that makes up the song Chelsea Embankment, and "Sunday on Stephen's Green/Dublin's a mist of dreams/Black umbrellas opened out/Against the rain" (Stephen's Green).
All but two of the songs were written by the Kennedys. My own favorite is Fortune Teller Road. It stands out from all the others in the starkness of the imagery and the modal quality of the melody, which together produce an eeriness that carries through beautifully in Maura's delivery. Note the refrain: "River gods and holy altars/Midnight rain and bones/There's a lonely meeting place/On Fortune Teller Road".
Maura sings solo or lead vocal on 5 of the 13 songs; the others are duets with Pete. My own preference is for her solo work, with her clear and unpretentious voice, in contrast to the sweet harmonies of the duets. This latter mellowness is at odds with the intensity of the lyrics. This is most evident on the songs written Richard Thompson and Tom Kimmels.
This is a successful album, but one likely to be appreciated most by those who like the folk-rock of the '70's and the "new acoustic" or "new Celtic" music of the '90's.
Selections: River of Fallen Stars Same Old Way Month of Hours Wall of Death (Richard Thompson) Day In and Day Out Winterheart Stephen's Green House on Fire (Tom Kimmel) Run the Red Horses Life Goes On Without You Chelsea Embankment Spirit Compass Fortune Teller Road This review is copyrighted, 1995 by Three Rivers Folklife Society. It may be reprinted with prior written permission and attribution.
The War Against Silence: Review by Glenn McDonald 14 · 2 May 95 Pete and Maura Kennedy: River of Fallen Stars
The most obvious thing to say about Pete and Maura Kennedy is that they would like to be Richard and Linda Thompson. And, as with most really obvious things, this one has an element of truth, and an element of pointlessly annoying stupidity. Yes, on the one hand, they appear to be a married folk-music couple, and they do sing "Wall of Death", which for your average Cypress Hill fan may well make them and the Thompsons virtually indistinguishable. Even at this superficial level, though, the differences aren't very hard to spot. The Kennedys' is a much more even collaboration, with both of them playing guitar and singing, and sharing writing credits on nine of these thirteen songs. They also don't really have any of the Thompsons' unnerving brink-of-self-annihilation edge; their rendition of "Wall of Death" is a nice study in vocal harmony, but the original, from Richard and Linda's harrowingly classic album Shoot Out the Lights, is a claustrophobic exercise in frustrated powerlessness. Still, if there weren't a Thompson cover on this album, it wouldn't have fit in with the theme of the CDs my parents got me for my birthday last month, and so I would almost certainly never have heard it. Because that was my introduction to this album, though, it took me a couple trips through it to realize that the Thompson-esque straight folk parts aren't, in my opinion, the Kennedys' strength. They're both competent singers and guitarists, but the individual elements aren't the foundation of their style the way Richard's guitar and Linda's voice were. In place of those virtues, the Kennedys here offer three distinct things that you might not want to overlook even if you don't frequent the "Folk" aisles.
First, they, bassist Stu Voorman and drummer Stumpy Joe Jr. make a quite plausible country/folk rock band. Maura's voice has a clean twang to it, the guitars chime cheerily, and Stumpy's drumming has a square, well, stumpiness to it, eminently suited to dances you can do in cowboy boots. "Wall of Death" is basically done this way, as is the Tom Kimmel/Stan Lynch composition "House on Fire" (on which the imprint of Lynch's day job with the Heartbreakers is clearly evident). Of the duo's own songs, the solid "Same Old Way", the mournful ballad "Day In and Day Out", the jangly "Winterheart", and Maura's requiem for her mother, "Life Goes On Without You" (which reminds me strongly, as things frequently seem to, of Beth Nielsen Chapman), all fit into this oeuvre. They do a good job with the style, and if this were all River of Fallen Stars had to offer, I'd still hang on to the CD, but as a clinically-certified completist I basically hang on to everything; remember: it's not trash if you don't throw it away. (Actually, the "clinically-certified" part was an improvisation, but if anybody does know of such a certification program, I'd be interested to hear the details. I think with the right medical affidavit I could get a healthy discount on the purchase of anything totally redundant or otherwise pathetically inessential for normal human existence, which for me would probably amount to a substantial savings before very long.)
The second thing Pete and Maura do well is a sort of modern day variant of the thin, elegant harmonies of those equally noble folk progenitors, Simon and Garfunkel, in their occasional serious moments (i.e., not the songs with lines like "I get up to wash my face, and when I come back to bed someone's taken my place", or "I've lost my harmonica, Albert"). "Month of Hours" sounds to me like a very young Paul and Art inexplicably given a mid-period REM backing track to sing something akin to "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" over, which would be especially confusing for them since that song was from their final album. "Chelsea Embankment", whose spare lyrics are entirely composed of London street names, reminds me a little of "April Come She Will". "Spirit Compass" doesn't remind me of any specific S&G song, but it's very much of a set with the other two. And in a way "Fortune Teller Road" reminds me of the Story (the guitars, mostly, not the singing), who I was set to champion as this decade's answer to Paul and Art before Jennifer Kimball decided (not unreasonably) that touring was a big pain in the ass. And, again, if this thread was all that this album was woven out of, it'd be a pretty interesting album, worth investigating.
But honestly, the reason I keep being inextricably drawn to the disc is the presence of just two songs, on which Pete and Maura transcend their usual perfectly admirable competence and achieve something thoroughly remarkable. If I were to make a single out of them, "River of Fallen Stars" would clearly be the title track. The cycling guitar parts are pure and breathtakingly free of anything even vaguely disharmonic. Bass and some subtle drums give the song some additional body, and over it Maura's achingly guileless voice soars, singing lines whose deliberate near-nonsensicality in print somehow seems appropriate in song ("And from down in the valley / Where the gospel horses run, / All the way to the midnight bridge / Where the flags of victory are hung..."). In place of Pete's usual vocal harmony is a tasteful resonating wisp of electric guitar feedback that licks at the edges of the melody like the tongue of a curious dragon (I'm really sorry about that overwrought simile, though obviously not quite sorry enough to remove it). The liner notes explain that this song was inspired by Giant's Causeway, in Ireland somewhere. I have no idea what kind of a place that really is, but this song makes me envision a sort of cross between a windswept world's-end coastline (the one in my mind, I realize, also comes from vicarious experience: it is the one off of which Frank Churchill throws the shreds of spiral-notebook paper from his abandoned first draft at the end of Kim Stanley Robinson's short story "'A History of the Twentieth Century, With Illustrations'") and Rivendell.
The flip side of the single would be, appropriately enough, the Dublin ode "Stephen's Green". In parts this is the most Simon-and-Garfunkel-like song of all of the ones here, with Pete and Maura's duet veering alarmingly close to the timbres of "Scarborough Fair", but the insistent guitar part gives it a rhythmic gait that carries it for me, and turns it from a languid choral exercise into an auspiciously hummable pop song. The reference to Grafton Street also serves as a nod to Nanci Griffith's song of that name on her last album, which I would expect is intentional, given that she receives the liner notes' concluding thank-you.
Green Linnet, the staunch folkie label on which this CD appears, seems to realize that the album has crossover aspirations, as they've optimistically inscribed "File Under Folk/Rock/Pop" in a corner of the back cover, but this gesture fails to acknowledge three important truths: 1) Anything arriving at a major record chain with "Green Linnet" on the return address is going to go straight into the folk/Celtic annex, even if it's plastered with Cannibal Corpse decals; 2) Anything whose back cover mentions "folk" has got ten seconds to also cough up Lou Barlow's name, or it's into the annex as well; and 3) even if the label name was edited to "Green Lantern", and the injunction thereon altered to "File under: Erratic Blowtorch Opera", the best a CD with this one's back cover photo of two patently goofy individuals holding acoustic guitars can hope for is that it's mistaken for a Timbuk 3 side project (ironically, the Kennedys do live in Austin), and liberated from the folk ghetto only to be placed with the rest of the Timbuk 3 records, usually right beside the collected works of Saigon Kick in a bin labeled "Special Offers -- $2.99-$5.99". Jason and Alison: Woodshed