[20 September 2009]
The banjo and the baritone sax: who would have thought these two somewhat odd musical instruments could join together so extraordinarily? Well Kieran Kane did, and he deserves credit for putting together an astonishing record based around the combination of sounds these two gadgets make. His oddly tuned banjo and Deanna Varagona’s (Lambchop) throbbing baritone sax make strange and compelling music that seems oddly familiar in its very weirdness, like a feeling you didn’t know you had for another person you’d never met before, or an appetite for an exotic cuisine one has never tasted.
Kane said the inspiration for this album came from listening to the old Muddy Waters, Little Walter, two-chord-style blues from the ‘50s. Indeed, there is something reminiscent of the electric guitar and harmonica interactions of those old records found here—although in this case the electric axe has been replaced by the banjo, and the baritone sax substitutes for the mouth harp. Kane strums and picks his banjo in odd and unexpected rhythms that compulsively repeat and stretch in unusual ways. The results suggest desire and a thirst for peace or resolution. Varagona’s sax mysteriously accents these yearnings as if they come from somewhere deep in the body, deeper than just sexual feelings (although that’s a part of it), where a kiss is more than just a kiss, etc.—a bottomless place from which everything emerges and can tear you apart.
The songs themselves, all written or co-written by Kane but one, mostly concern tangled hearts and weary souls, marriage and unfaithfulness, power and powerlessness, and other dualities in a manner that evokes Old Testament notions of sin and New Testament ideas of forgiveness. There are references to the King James Bible in the words of itinerant preachers used to justify bad behaviors and provide balm to troubled minds. Tracks like “Way Down Below”, “Anybody’s Game”, and “Marriage of Convenience” have the narrator offering excuses for transgressions that its clear he may not believe, but like any good snake oil salesperson, expects you to accept at face value. The music often gets choppy to suggest troubled mental states and anxious concsiences.
The more positive messages, on tunes like “I Took My Power Back” and “Hands Across the Water”, suggest that coming to terms with one’s failings gives one strength. On these songs, Kane’s banjo playing calms down to rhythms that evoke even breaths, while Varagona’s sax contrastingly offers longer riffs that metaphysically suggest a supportive physical state. The two are joined by Richard Bennett on electric guitar and Kane’s son Lucas on the album, but these two take a low profile and aren’t even present for long stretches on most songs.
Kane’s material shows that he is a topnotch songwriter, but the unlikely combination of banjo and baritone sax is the real draw here. The two instruments blend together in wondrous harmony, or offer contrasting tonalities in consistently pleasurable and interesting ways. Even if one were listening to the album from another room,where the lyrics would be muted and not understood, the meaning of the music would be clear and strong. There’s an alchemical reaction here that transmutes the disparate elements into gold.