Gentle, strummy folk rock with shout-outs to Emerson, Kerouac, and Buddha. As Buddha might say, 'rub my belly'. Then Emerson: 'Um...', and Kerouac: 'Sure!'"
Walden Pond, the Grand Canyon, St. Mark's Place, Route 66, the Lincoln Memorial: The Kennedys' latest collection of folk songs is a tribute of sorts to love in a thousand places. Five hundred thousand, to be exact. The title track celebrates the first meeting of Maura and Pete Kennedy at the Continental Club in Austin, Texas, in the folk style as classically American as their name. It moves on from there to a catalogue of places they've visited since that fateful night 13 years ago. Renowned for both their vocal and guitar harmonies, the Kennedys are at their best when their songs get specific in invoking the places and ideas that inspire them. When the well-meaning and fully felt social philosophies threaten to overpower their imagery, however, the songs dip into the simply mediocre waters of contemporary folk.
Luckily, those bland moments are less than frequent on Half a Million Miles. Most of the songs are anchored in real-world details that support and typify the Kennedys' worldview without preaching it explicitly. "Midnight Ghost" recreates the first chapter of Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, wherein the freight-train hopping protagonists tells a fellow traveler to "...settle in your bedroll and I'll pass you the wine, / Just to warm the soul as we roll down the line." The rhythm of the song captures the momentum of the "train called the Midnight Ghost", which can hit "80 miles an hour on the straightaway, man". The song is also catchy as hell, and incidentally still stuck in the head of a sound engineer friend of mine who worked a gig for them a few months back. It's a prime example of effective, straightforward storytelling.
To contrast, the song that precedes it on record, "Namaste", reaches for similar meaning but misses the mark. Despite being centered on the Japanese word of the title, which translates as "the divine in me recognizes the divine in you", the song unfortunately deals in watery platitudes like "Even in dreams, you've got to be kind, / 'Cause flowers can grow in an open mind". That's nice and all but it's deadly boring in a song, and nowhere near as effective as showing an example of kindness, as in the wine sharing on "Midnight Ghost". The song's background, according to the great little notes ascribed to every song in the booklet, reads in part: "There's a little sushi bar on the corner of Saint Mark's Place and First Avenue where the proprietor cuts artful sculptures out of sheets of colored paper (an artform known as kirigami), and his wife greets everyone with... 'Namaste'". If only the verses described their first encounter with this couple, and the discovery of the phrase's meaning, than the song would be infinitely more interesting.
Speaking of infinity, it's also the focus of the song "Live", which rips-off the Band's "The Weight" and Van Morrison's "Crazy Love", although it strikes a fair enough balance between imagery and sentiment. The chorus of
"Come on and live, /
Eternity is now, /
Come on now live, /
I can show you how, /
...When you die to every moment then you know how to live."
-- doesn't show me as much as the first verse, about "two dogs by the roadside on the way into town" and "two saints in the temple with the tears rolling down". And neither shows me how to live as much as "Half a Million Miles", where a lifelong connection is sparked in one moment:
"In a funky rock and roll bar, a man and a woman sat, /
While the rain poured down with the dim, deep sound, but they paid no mind to that, /
They talked about the old songs, they wrote one that was new, /
They sang it to Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson too."
There, without hammering the listener over the head with supposed profundity, the Kennedys offer a moment up to reveal itself on its own, in its own time.