The High Kings – Friends For Life
**** (out of 4 stars)
Label: Sony Classics
The High Kings have made the first “must have” album of 2014. The opening vocal splash (“Oh Maggie, give me one more chance…”) on Friends For Life, their new album, instantly wakes you up from your post-Grammy Awards boredom. “Oh Maggie” make it clear from the start that melody is king and that pure-as-gold vocals are still in style. It’s not just the technical perfection of the voices that shuffle as naturally and as tightly as four suits in a deck of cards. Oh, no, it’s the way those cards are dealt — with precision and care, with intention and emotion, with bravura and class.
Friends for Life features fourteen compelling tracks, including several originals by the group, that showcase the many instrumental and vocal talents of these four Irish musicians. For the record, The High Kings are: Darren Holden (vocals, guitar, piano, mandolin); Martin Furey (vocals, guitar, banjo, pipes); Brian Dunphy (vocals, guitar, bodhran); and Finbarr Clancy (vocals, guitar, 5-string banjo). Together, they play 13 instruments… and they play them exceptionally well.
Friends For Life is produced by Sharon Shannon and John Dunford and engineered by Tim Martin. With expectations so high after the success of their previous albums (their self-titled debut in 2008, Memory Lane in 2010, as well as the near-perfect Live in Ireland in 2011), Shannon and Dunford have smartly allowed the songs in this collection to breathe with a certain freedom from strict tradition. It’s a strategy that allows The High Kings to pay tribute to the past while letting them share their own contemporary voices. Multi-platinum artists, The High Kings are now making music with Sony Classical. Here’s hoping that Sony realizes how eager music lovers around the globe are for a group as entertaining and as talented as The High Kings, and that they promote them adequately in today’s dicey music retail environment.
The album’s first hit is the opening track, “Oh Maggie.” It’s an exuberant plea for understanding and love that kicks things off with a euphoric start. Setting the tone for the entire album, “Oh Maggie” straddles the traditional and contemporary sound with a heartfelt lead vocal from Darren Holden. With such earnest singing, how could any Maggie ever say no? It’s the kind of song that you’ll sing along to, tap your foot to, smile to, and believe in the powerful possibility of renewed love to. It’s brilliant and it showcases just what makes The High Kings the kind of band you wished were from your hometown, so that you could hear them in concert time and time again.
The album’s second track, “Gucci,” weaves an intricate atmosphere with its hypnotic rhythmic interplay and thrusts us into a more introspective musical place. We are off on an adventure with an intoxicating lead vocal by Martin Furey and an almost primitive chorus echoing throughout. The next, very successful track, “All Around the World,” featuring seductive vocals by Brian Dunphy, is a catchy love song that soothes and swoons and comes just in time for St. Valentine’s Day. Along with “Oh Maggie,” this song epitomizes what is just so “right” about this album — there’s a bright, bold spirit that shines through these two tracks that cause me to hit the “repeat” button, repeatedly. But all it takes it the first listen to appreciate that they are songs that perfectly embody the positive messages they convey. The form and the function are one, and quite wonderful.
Next, The High Kings show off their ability to harmonize with “Johnny Leave Her.” The mix is impeccable; somehow, they make four voices sound like an entire choir. That moving story song is followed by a moody take on “Health to the Company,” that works as well as all previous versions. Next up is “Galway Girl,” a song that (in this inventive arrangement) highlights similarities between Celtic folk music and the Louisiana zydeco sound. With the self-contained instrumental percussion and the insistent shuffling beat, you’ll think you landed at a house-dance hootenanny on the bayou. It’s a stylistic departure that arrives at just the right place in the album’s flow, and it only strengthens the atmosphere of the songs that surround it. The next track is “Peggy Gordon.” It is tender, soft and plaintive… just as it should be. I guarantee that you’ll find yourself singing along to this familiar Canadian song of a man in love with, and longing to be with, the woman named Peggy Gordon. It’s old-school folk and a truer, more sincere delivery cannot be imagined.
Then, comes the tidal wave of sound called “High.” If there’s a potentially monster pop hit for The High Kings, this is it. It has it all (and with the right music video, it could easily bring The High Kings to all the right awards shows next season). That mammoth musical statement is followed by something of a palate cleanser, “Ireland’s Shore.” The energetic song is a rousing good time, featuring a bit of story-telling expertise from each member of the group. Then, “Come With Me Now,” the next track, waltzes along with some of the most gorgeous instrumental embellishments on the entire album.
“MacAlpines Fusiliers,” the liveliest song on the album, illustrates why some describe The High Kings as “folk ‘n’ roll.” Their version is more boisterous than you may have heard before (unless, of course, you’re in the right pub), but the classic song’s rollicking, hard-to-contain enthusiasm with the almost preaching, slightly Appalachian arrangement is irresistible. (Bonus: with a song that twists and turns like this one, it’s a thrill to hear every single lyric clearly. You can thank the well-trained vocal technique of Darren Holden for that.)
Next up is the album’s title tune, “Friends For Life.” With its intimacy, it is an appropriate near ending. The quiet song slowly builds upon itself, growing like a true friendship until it envelops its theme. The album’s final two tracks, “Music Makers” and “Friends For Life” are two contrasting parting thoughts. “Music Makers” is a rhapsodic anthem that could easily serve as the closing theme song if The High Kings had a weekly television variety show. “Keg of Brandy” is one last, sincere, sentimental toast. Just as the album had a brilliant “Haigh!” with “Oh Maggie,” so too are these two songs the perfect au revoir.
Their fans around the globe may think they know everything about The High Kings’ music they need to know from their previous albums. But, with the songs offered here, this is a chance for fans to acquaint themselves with these four musicians in an even deeper way. They’re the kind of group you hope will release an album a year forever; for to hear The High Kings sing a new song is to make a new friend for life.
Essential Downloads: “Oh Maggie,” “All Around The World,” “High,” “Come With Me Now.”
To preview or purchase this album on iTunes, click here.
(The High Kings, left to right: Finbarr Clancy, Martin Furey, Brian Murphy, Darren Holden)