Joy Kills Sorrow: This Unknown Science

Quite simply, this is one of the best bluegrass-meets-folk albums you hear this year – if not in any given year.

Joy Kills Sorrow

This Unknown Science

Label: Signature Sounds
US Release Date: 2011-09-13
UK Release Date: 2011-09-19

Chances are, if you live outside of places like Boston and New York City, you probably don’t know the name Bridget Kearney. Chances are, if the world suddenly becomes a fair and just place, you soon will. The multitalented bassist/songwriter has garnered a great deal of acclaim – she won the John Lennon Songwriting contest in 2006 for her compositions “Sometimes When I’m Drunk” and “You’re Wearing My Favorite Shirt” – and is known as being a bit of a multi-tasker, as a member of bands such as Cuddle Magic, the Xylopholks (a group that plays 1920s-style ragtime music while dressed up in furry animal costumes) and a little Boston-based jazz-folk outfit called Lake Street Dive, whose third eponymous album released last year earned a rave review from myself, and her latest ongoing project, the bluegrass-rich Joy Kills Sorrow. It might be unseemly to highlight the accomplishments of the current Brooklynite, for a band is merely as great as the combined effort of all of its individual members. However, seeing that Kearney has either written or co-written all of the 11 songs on Joy Kills Sorrow’s latest release, This Unknown Science, a lot of the success rests squarely on her shoulders. Given the material presented on This Unknown Science -- music that is delightfully toe-tapping, shifting from the triumphant to the downtrodden -- and the aforementioned Lake Street Dive album, it seems apt to say that Kearney is a major talent who, despite being on the small folk label Signature Sounds, is ripe for discovery by the masses. Her songs swoon, brood, and have all of the rich majesty of someone who is clearly wise beyond her years.

As good as Kearney’s contributions are to This Unknown Science – with hardly a misfire among the bunch – she has wisely surrounded herself with some crackerjack talents who are virtuosos in their own right. She's joined by acoustic guitarist Matthew Arcara, who, according to the accompanying press release, has won several honours at various guitar competitions, including Winfield’s National Flatpicking Championship in 2006. Young singer Emma Beaton has similarly picked up accolades by winning “Young Performer of the Year” as an 18-year-old at the Canadian Folk Music Awards in 2008 and was nominated for “Traditional Vocalist of the Year” at the same ceremony last year. Rounding out the bill are banjo player Wesley Corbett and mandolin player Jacob Jolliff. The latter seemingly hasn’t taken home the sort of hardware that his peers in the band have, but that might change if This Unknown Science is any indication. Jolliff is a cascading mountain of a picker, running through runs of sixteenth notes flawlessly and with great aplomb. A great deal of the accomplishment of the album can be attributed to his up-front, endearing flashiness, which accentuates the generally feel-good and uplifting nature of a majority of the songs to be found here.

The style of bluegrass presented on This Unknown Science is a lot like what you’d get if the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? was performed on crack cocaine. Yet there are moments of fragile beauty that you’ll want to place beside your pillow and cuddle up with. Clearly flavoured by and inspired by the folk music of rural Appalachia, This Unknown Science is spun in a cocoon of new folk influences. At times, you can hear a hint of Bon Iver, if Justin Vernon performed with a sense of spirit and vigour. Chamber music influences filter through the mix as well, with some well-placed and organic cello adding texture to many of these songs of affirmation and tribulation. Some songs are lush and supple – the quiet “When I Grow Up”, the haunting “Jason” – and some you want to quite simply kick off your clogs and dance to, like “New Man”, which has the band singing out a series of “whoo-hoo’s” during the chorus with such infection that it carries you along as the song gradually gains momentum like a steam train being shovelled hastily with coal.

While there is a clutch of momentous songs that, ideally, will be sung around campfires, if not folk festivals, nothing takes the cake quite like the album’s final track, “Such Sweet Alarms”. Time literally slows in its tracks as Beaton cries out such painfully plaintive lines as, “How does a bridesmaid meet her groom? / God, can you send me someone soon?” The song, as a whole, which shows the band restraining its fingerpicking, aside from some nice figures on the mandolin during the solo, will have you reaching for the thesaurus to find new synonyms for words or phrases like “lovely”, “gorgeous” and “heart melting”. For a song that cries out for love in all its yearning and loneliness, it’s hard to imagine the female talents of this band going long without prospective suitors just on the sheer stew of heartfelt emotions that the song brings forward in the listener. This is the song I’d want played at my wedding, despite the spirit of longing that permeates the track. (If R.E.M.’s misogyny-tinged “The One I Love” can be a wedding song, let me entertain my fantasy.)

Speaking on the subject of hearts a fluttering with unbridled passion, let me count the ways in which I absolutely love and adore this album, and “Such Sweet Alarms” in particular. This Unknown Science hasn’t really left my CD player since it arrived in the mail. It’s just such a well-orchestrated album from the very first notes, and you can tell that the members of Joy Kills Sorrow are classically trained with an ear towards melding varied and distinct colours and textures to their music. There are new things that impact the listener each and every time you hit repeat on this solid and storied collection of songs: the background vocals deep in the mix of “Jason”, the banjo that sounds like a piano on “The Ice Is Starting to Melt”, the hand slapped guitar on “Eli” that you have to strain to hear. Listening to This Unknown Science is a journey through homespun genre and a myriad of sonic delights. The world deserves to hear music that is so joyous and delightful as this. Hearing not just one, but two albums that are so nearly pitch-perfect (this album and Lake Street Dive), I want to go out, empty my pockets of whatever loose change might reside there, and buy up everything in the expansive catalogue of music penned by Kearney. I don’t know how she does what she does, but everything that I’ve heard by this promising young songwriter simply turns to gold, and needs to be heard by the hoi polloi in the cruel harsh world at large. This Unknown Science effortlessly and effusively marks the trajectory of an artist who knows her way around the word “craft” – which is such a rarity in this crazy, unfair, mixed-up Lady Gaga world. Chances are, if you love good music, regardless of genre, you’ll find this all out for yourself, too.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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