Emer Kenny: Parting Glass

[7 December 2004]

By Matt Cibula

The Celtic Soul Mama; Or, Haterz Need Not Apply.

She sings, she writes, she plays harp (real harp, not harmonica) (and keyboards, but it’s sexier to talk about harp), she co-produces. She’s Irish. She’s the strangest kind of pop musician you could ever hope for.

Emer Kenny’s chance of making it into the actual real-life pop charts here in America are, as they say in Ireland, nil. But I can see her music becoming very popular with several different niche markets: AAA stations, folk music enthusiasts (although it’s really too pop for them), and especially Irish music fanatics, due to her thick rich lilting accent.

It’s a lovely voice she has, and that’s nothing at which to sneeze. The way she nails “Scarborough Fair” is something to behold; to a jazz waltz backup—with her own harp picking out double-triplet Steve Reich-ian lines—she nails this ancient melody like a breathy assassin. There is pathos here, and perhaps it’s not the most thoughtful reading, but it’s pretty as hell, especially with the weird dark floating Lanois-style synth chords floating in the distance. It’s made a little more impressive when you realize she’s added some extra words to the end: “Love imposes impossible tasks / Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme / Though not more than any heart asks / And I must know he’s a true love of mine.”

Her ability to slay with her voice is demonstrated on track after track. She gives a lovely gauzy feel to traditional numbers like “Moll Dubh a Ghleanna” and “An Hini a Garan”. My Irish, sadly, is nonexistent, so I cannot tell if she’s added any additional lyrics to these tracks, but they sound great. Also lovely are the English-language trad tracks: “She Moved Through the Fair” has a yearning martial vibe, and “Ye Rambling Boys of Pleasure” gets some extra banjo and ends up as an ambient campfire song, with additional lyrics about wanting to be in America. (Honey, have you read the news lately? Stay in Ireland!)

Some might say that these songs are a little schlocky, a bit too easy and soft-hearted, and I couldn’t tell them they were wrong. But Emer Kenny is not out to overthrow her audience. She’s just singing and playing her harp, and throwing in the occasional wrinkle or a slightly-odd new lyric here and there. So haterz need not apply.

Having said that, I find myself drawn more to her original songs, which share the double benefit of sounding pretty and having more of an edge to them. “Cast a Spell” is the big single, which is funny because it’s in 5/4 time and marries a Romany concertina line to flamenco handclapping. Kenny pants lines like “You’ve cast a spell / Blood rush in my head / Race through my veins / Fever hot in my bed” and “Thy will be done / Open me like a flower” ... hubba hubba! I miss songs of sexual obsession, there need to be more of them. The really shocking thing here is the last track: a Junior Vasquez remix of “Cast a Spell” that turns it into 4/4 Enya-robot house music. This is not good, but it’s kind of fascinating and funny, so yay.

“Rescue Me” would fit into any Norah Jones album, a sweet little piano waltz about burning desire and needing to be rescued. It’s pretty and understated, and anyone who can’t feel this is working a little too hard to be tough. The two original instrumentals are also good, especially “Emer’s Jig”, which has a great new wave shuffle beat for its two minutes of life.

This is not a revolution in Irish music—Kenny might start one of those if she concentrated on writing more original songs, but she’s not ready for that yet apparently. Parting Glass is adorable and easy to take. If you have a problem with that, you stopped reading long ago.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/kennyemer-parting/