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FAME Review: James Keelaghan - House of Cards
James Keelaghan - House of Cards

House of Cards

James Keelaghan

Borealis Records - BCD198

Available from Borealis Records.

A review written for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange
by Frank Gutch Jr.

If any of you younger people out there ever wondered about the art of modern folk music, here is a great place to start. And, yes, it is an art. There is poetry and meaning in true folk music which separates modern folk from standard singer/songwriter fare and few have it down better than James Keelaghan. Blessed with textured voice, a cross between maybe that of Gordon Lightfoot and Roger Whittaker, he captures the folk era of the late sixties-through-seventies with straightforward and simple charm. And I know what you're thinking. It probably sounds dated. Allow me to alleviate that fear because good folk music, like all good music, transcends that very thought, and this is not only good but very, very good.

Story is that Joella Foulds of the Celtic Colours Festival in Cape Breton locked Keelaghan and five other songwriters in a house with a promise of release only after striking music and lyric gold. A short time later (yes, a short time—these people are professionals, as you will understand upon hearing the gold mined), they stepped into the Canadian sunshine armed with a handful of outstanding originals which they handed to Keelaghan for what resulted in House of Cards. With Keelaghan's own originals, it is a full house, indeed.

The title track, a Pete Seeger-esque dig at financial institutions which make up the rules as they go along, has the feel of Malvina Reynolds' Little Boxes, in spirit if not in sound, and let me say that the sound is exceptional. Keelaghan places voice way upfront as he sings on the last verse:

We bought that dream and we sold it on
But it ain't worth nothing now the money's gone
The only shelter that credit buys
Is a house of cards and a pack of lies

Few songs say as much these days and if Pete Seeger has heard it, it is guaranteed that it got two thumbs up.

While the most 'visible,' it is not the only song of note. All ten, from Safe Home to Circle of Stone, are classic examples of what modern folk should be and, these days, rarely is. There is a simplicity to the structure which allows voice and lyric special status without taking away from the music, and it works beautifully. Keelaghan tells a story or makes a point at every turn, but never forces the issue. The song is the center. Believe it or not, that is very hard to do.

One song which carries me away every time I hear it is Medusa, which prints in my mind's eye the scene in Metropolis in which masses march into the mouth of The Machine. The most poignant (to me) verse goes

Can you hear the clatter of boots?
Kits and packs and khaki suits
And ragged regimental colours flying
Swallowed whole by the cold steel rain
A little fresh blood for the serpent's vein
Every single look is petrifying
It's a short sharp whistle call to attack
Running up ahead, never coming back
Caught right in the eye of some Medusa

If war can be poetic, that is war and if it doesn't conjure up The Machine, nothing does.

Keelaghan and Lloyd Peterson produced and deserve great praise for their tender touch. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the sequestered songwriters—David Francey, Rose Cousins, Lori Watson, Karine Polwart and Dave Gunning—each and all contributing to what I believe is one of the best folk releases of 2009.

By the way, to qualify my statement regarding the music, Keelaghan does not rely only upon his voice and guitar. There are other instruments on many tracks, from brass to steel guitar to bass and beyond, all used expertly enough to add to and not get in the way of the final product. You really have to hear it to appreciate what was accomplished. Search the Net for Keelaghan. Listen to samples. Buy the album. If you like modern folk, this is as good as it comes.

Track List:

  • Safe Home [David Francey & James Keelaghan (SOCAN)]
  • Next To You [Rose Cousins & James Keelaghan (SOCAN)]
  • Since You Asked [James Keelaghan (Tranquilla Music [SOCAN)]
  • House of Cards [James Keelaghan, Lori Watson, Dave Gunning, David Francey, Karine Polwart (SOCAN [PRO)]
  • McConnville's [James Keelaghan (Tranquilla Music [SOCAN)]
  • What's For You [David Francey, James Keelaghan, Kartine Polwart (SOCAN [PRO)]
  • Medusa [Karine Polwart, James Keelaghan (SOCAN [PRO)]
  • Twister [James Keelaghan (Tranquilla Music [SOCAN)]
  • Leave Town [James Keelaghan (Tranquilla Music [SOCAN)]
  • Circle of Stone [James Keelaghan (Tranquilla Music [SOCAN)]

Edited by: David N. Pyles


Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
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