Vancouver’s the Real Mckenzies play raucous Celtic-tinged punk in the style of Dropkick Murphys or Flogging Molly, with raspy vocals from Paul McKenzie and the presence of Gord Taylor on bagpipes lending an unmistakably Scottish lilt to the whole business. Having played and toured the past 20 years, the band has released numerous albums, and their latest, Westwinds, provides as good a point of entry as any for newcomers. Here’s hoping that it draws some attention, as this is a scorcher of an album.
Opening track “The Tempest” is an engaging enough foot-stomper, but follow-up tune “Fool’s Road” is where things really ignite. Powered by a frenetic bagpipe squeal and over-the-top drumming from Sean Sellers—and oh yeah, some guitars too—the tune rips forth from the speakers as McKenzie hollers about a band’s life on the road. At their best, the Real McKenzies are able to harness the twin horses of Celtic tradition and scruffy punk, and when they are successful, as they are here, the results are invigorating. All of which is to say, this song kicks.
Other songs do too: “The Bluenose” and “Halloween” are both high energy rave-ups, the latter especially benefiting from McKenzie’s brogue-heavy delivery. The story of—well, I’m not sure exactly—it’s a tune originally written by Robbie Burns but set to fuzzy guitars and the banshee wailing of the pipes. There are fairies and phantoms aplenty, so make of that what you will. “The Bluenose” is a more straightforward song with a nautical theme, one of many on the record, this time relating the story of a Canadian sailing vessel renowned for its speed.
Ships and seafaring crop up often on the record, beginning with the cover art and extending literally and metaphorically to such tunes as “The Tempest”, “Bluenose”, and “Barrett’s Privateers”. Elsewhere, the sea figures as a supporting player, as in the transcendent “My Head Is Filled With Music”. Easily the best song on the album, “My Head…” tells the story of Billy Millin, a Scottish bagpiper who was present during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Following centuries of tradition, Millin led the assault while playing pipes, inspiring the troops who followed even as he withstood German resistance.
The story is true; Millin is a real figure who died in 2010 and who played pipes at Sword Beach as the Allies advanced. According to Wikipedia, German snipers later admitted to not shooting him because they thought he was crazy. The fact that the Real McKenzies thought to spin a song out of such a historical event, and then managed to create such a moving tune, tells you everything you need to know about these musicians.
Mixing original songs with a handful of selected covers, the band achieves a good balance between the noisy and the sedate, between uptempo energy and the slower rhythms of traditional ballads. That said, the slower tunes here are less memorable. “Hi Lily” and “I Do What I Want” are both fairly dull, while “My Luck Is So Bad”, while vaguely amusing, lacks the fire of the band at its best. All these songs are probably terrific sing-alongs in concert, but on record they feel flat.
That shouldn’t scare any listeners off, though: what The Real McKenzies do well, they do unlike anyone else. That’s reason enough to give them a spin.