Review: “Friends for Life,” The High Kings
“Johnny Leave Her” is a moldy oldie, but The High Kings might make you forget its age.
On the new album, “Friends for Life,” due out in early February, the ensemble’s four singers do what they clearly do best: harmonies. I’m a sucker for good harmonies—it’s one of the reasons I love bluegrass—but this a capella version is particularly memorable, a lovely update.
There’s a lot to like about this album, although not all of the 12 tunes are up to that same lofty standard. If you’re a diehard fan of the High Kings—and let’s face it, they’re one of the hottest groups in Ireland, if not the entire planet at the moment—you probably won’t be disappointed. Although I should say that the first few listener reviews on Amazon are mixed.
Still, fan or not, give it a listen. There’s much to like.
The manager of the phenomenally successful Celtic Woman assembled The High Kings in 2008, arguably capitalizing on a trend started by Riverdance. Groups like that are more brand than band. But you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and there’s simply no getting around that the four possess undeniable gifts. Wikipedia will tell you that, together, they play 13 instruments. And they play them on a particularly high level. And their singing is ridiculously flawless. And, as more than one traditional Irish musician has told me, you don’t have to play a tune the way it was played at the crossroads a hundred years ago. Music is about invention.
And if you’re looking for a pedigree, you can’t do much better than Finnbarr Clancy, son of The Clancy Brothers’ Bobby. Martin Furey is the son of traditional singer, raconteur and multi-instrumentalist Finbar Furey, and we flat-out love him. Brian Dunphy is a veteran of Riverdance and one-time member of the Three Irish Tenors, but he’s also the son of renowned show band performer Sean Dunphy. Darren Holden likewise did a stint in Riverdance.
So, on to the music.
The Kings’ first tune, “Oh Maggie,” sets the tone for most of what follows. The boys perform the first verse without instrumental accompaniment, and once again, their tight harmonies are flawless, leading into a kicky little rock jig performed on traditional instruments. Eminently listenable. Also dance-able, if you’re of a mind to.
A little later on, we hear the aforementioned “Johnny Leave Her.” As I say, one of the highlights.
The band puts a kind of syncopated country and western spin on “Health to the Company.” Depending on your orientation, you’ll see it as entirely acceptable or an outright violation. It certainly won’t make you forget the song as Kevin Conneff performed it with the Chieftains on “The Wide World Over,” but I liked it. I’ll admit it: I sang along. My harmonies are flawless, too, of course. (As in: In my dreams.)
“Galway Girl” was a sparking surprise. I’ve heard it a million times, but this version is performed as zydeco. I’ve always wondered why anyone would re-make a classic, if they can’t make it better. And whatever tune it is, it almost always fails to live up to the original. Let’s start with almost any remake by the smarmy Michael Bolton. In this case, the re-make is better. One of my hands-down faves on this album.
You might also recognize a grand old ballad by the name of “Peggy Gordon.” Very nice, but I must say, I’ve heard it better. And so have you, if you’ve ever heard our Karen, John and Michael Boyce sing it.
A few of the tunes seem to me like fillers. There’s a tune called “Gucci.” I can’t be bothered to care. You’ll probably skip past it. And I have to say, the title tune—the last one on the album—bores me almost to the point of lifelessness. Their version of Dominic Behan’s “MacAlpine’s Fusiliers” simply lacks soul. If you’d heard a local bar band play it, you’d get into it. In this case, it’s way too slick and overproduced.
Some of you might say that the entire thing is slick and overproduced. OK, I won’t lie to you, they’re not The Pogues. Frankly, on one or two tunes, they remind me of The Corrs. You know—if The Corrs were guys. Perish the thought.
But that’s not what The High Kings are about. So let’s be fair and open-minded about this business. Take them for what they are, and what they are is very talented.