The 10 tracks on Kern's "The Left and the Leaving" are more nuanced that those on group's 2016 debut album.
By Daniel Neely
County Louth band Kern has been busy the last few of years. They’ve played places like Milwaukee Irish Fest and Folk Alliance in Montreal, in 2018 they were winners of the Temple Bar TradFest showcase, and they had a headlining spot at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann last year, which is around the time they released “The Left and the Leaving” a knockout new album that features 10 very interesting instrumental and vocal tracks.
Kern is Barry Kieran (fiddle), S.J. McArdle (vocals, guitars, mandolin), and Brendan McCreanor (uilleann pipes, whistles, harmony vocals), three great musicians, each of whom has a strong individual voice with well-established musical bona fides, but who, together, play with a singular vision. As a group, they have a great “band” feel. (The album also includes three guests who complement the group’s sound well albeit in limited fashion: Eamonn Moloney, bodhrán; Dónal O’Connor, piano and organ; Kand Lúnasa’s Trevor Hutchinson, bass.)
In 2016 I wrote about Kern’s quite enjoyable debut “The False Deceiver,” saying that its “understated guitar playing, paired with lonesome touches on the fiddle, and tightly controlled piping [made it] an intriguing release.” Listening to it alongside the new album, though, I’m struck at how much the band’s sound has developed. While “False Deceiver” was certainly a good album, I find “The Left and the Leaving” leaves a more substantial impression overall. The songwriting and approach to arranging here seem more developed and contribute to a greater overall whole.
To start, the instrumental tracks here are excellent and, I feel, sound more nuanced than those on “Deceiver.” Kieran and McCreanor stand out here, perhaps more so than McArdle (whose accompaniment is nonetheless very, very fine), but together the three play boldly and with great flourish. “Russian Reels,” a set of tunes McCreanor put together while on tour in Russia, is a standout, for the quality of his piping and for the interesting turns the arrangement takes. Kieran is at the center of “Somers March/Daragh Patrick’s” and excels. What begins somewhat plaintively becomes daring and dramatic by track’s end – it’s an interesting journey, made possible by superior musicianship, great tunes, and interesting choices in the arrangement.
However, the songs are where I think this album’s real strengths lie. McArdle has a distinctive voice, gruff, almost like a rock singer’s, but he uses it sympathetically according to demands of the song at hand. I find this sympathy perhaps most apparent on “The Porcupine,” an original song that opens the album and “Bonny Light Horseman,” a traditional song that closes it. “Porcupine” is in itself a bit of historical fiction involving a ship called The Porcupine whose master was named Cleveland, both of which actually existed. However, the imagined relationship between Cleveland and his wife, which is at the song’s heart, conveys a “common man” sensibility that honestly reminded me a bit of Bruce Springsteen’s songwriting. McArdle’s delivery galvanizes the song’s sentiment and makes for a very successful, relatable track. “Bonny” is given more conventional treatment; a sparse, lightly done arrangement allows McArdle plenty of space to express the emotions inherent in the lyrics. The waltz that ends the track and draws the album to a close is a beautiful addition and fits with the song perfectly.
Another really interesting vocal track is “Bold Doherty,” a traditional song collected in Tinure, County Louth. Again, McArdle brings great charisma to the song in a way I imagine many listeners will find engaging, but it wouldn’t mean much without the stellar arrangement here. Featuring a touch of electric guitar to go alongside the fiddle and pipes, the instrumental accompaniment is ear catching and at times hypnotic.
Ultimately, “The Left and the Leaving” is a very interesting album that gives traditional values mainstream polish. Kern’s music tends towards the familiar – they don’t deconstruct song forms or take undue liberties with melody and seem to favor material that honors the tradition – but because they aren’t beholden to convention, they are able to do things that gives their sound a very contemporary feel. The music on “Left” is very radio-ready stuff and could be programmed against folk-rock or even country music without losing the “Irishness” inherent in their music and I think would have broad appeal in that sense. I think it’s music that will draw listeners, anyway, especially those interested in something with a modern flair. Check it out! For more info, visit kernmusic.com.