Skimming through email submissions found in the GDW inbox is a little like browsing through the new arrivals at the record store. You know how it goes – you thumb through an obscene collection of records looking for specific artists or predetermined albums, and during that process, something completely unfamiliar to you is likely to jump out from the pack and catch your eye. And depending on your frame of mind, you may give it a cursory glance and lock the name away for a rainy day, or you may succumb to temptation, and take a chance by taking it home with you anyway.
This scenario pretty much describes how I approached “Libertine,” the third album from Morin-Heights, QC singer-songwriter Ryan Kennedy. Appearing in my inbox during a time when we found ourselves overwhelmed with fresh submissions, it would be an image of the cool black and white album cover that leapt out at me. I had zero familiarity with the artist – but bookmarked the email out of curiosity to return to at a later date. It would be a couple of weeks before this one would be revisited, and pulling up the album on my streaming platform, I clicked PLAY and spent a little time with “Wild Sky,” the opener on this 7-track album. And maybe it was my frame of mind when settling down to listen, but the song was just a little too mellow for me at the time. I was still curious, but the music and I were just not connecting at this particular moment. Strike One.
Don’t get me wrong – “Wild Sky” is an incredible slow-burner of a tune, with some beautiful moving and melodic strings that open, before yielding to keys and muted bass notes – and returning to the track a couple of weeks later, I once again allowed myself to be victimized by my own impatience, and cast this one aside once more. Strike Two. Curiosity can be a powerful force, however, and “Libertine” stepped back up to the plate for one final ‘at-bat’ just a couple of weeks ago, with the game on the line. This time around, “Wild Sky” hit the right notes, dancing around in my headphones on wavelengths that were suddenly aligned. And as I freely progressed through the remainder of the album, I was left with goosebumps. Maybe my pitching arm had weakened by now, but as the final track, “Burning Cult,” faded to a close, Ryan Kennedy had not only taken a confident swing, he had knocked this one out into the bleachers.
“Libertine” finds Ryan pushing beyond the boundaries of his established folk persona, adding a more profound pop aesthetic to his repertoire, and rounded out with hints of country, rock, and even a little disco. The album’s second track, “Heartbreaker” is much more upbeat than the mellow opener, with a slight early 80s pop music vibe: “Come hell or water high / Count on me by your side / You will find peace of mind / In this life / May the river lead you further / Beyond the promised land / Beyond your weakness / God bless you, old friend.” Pay attention to the gradual increase of the intensity as this track plays out, the instrumentation reaching a powerful high that not only draws “Heartbreaker” to a close, but straps you firmly into your seat in anticipation of the “Fast Ride” that follows.
With most popular music albums, there is typically a song that becomes your go-to track – whether it be a tune long since popularized by your favorite radio station, or something that you are subliminally drawn to – and following my first full album experience, “Fast Ride” immediately earned this distinction. Bursting to life with bouncing synths, guitar tones, and some sweet saxophone, I was bitten immediately by the juxtaposition of some simple vocal and piano accompaniment one moment, then an all-out explosion of sound the next. “Let’s take the long way home / Tonight / Far from the city lights / You’re gonna be famous / You’re gonna be a star / Your name on my boulevard / Yeah, a girl like you / Can take the wheel / Can hold on strong / And carry on / My wildest dreams / My greatest fears / And all my sadness.” This particular track left such a strong impression that if asked to share my initial thoughts, I’d be lost for words – the best I could offer is that I’m hearing elements of Adam Baldwin in style and sound, with a huge emphasis on a theatrical production element more akin to Meatloaf’s powerhouse stadium-rock sound. “Fast Ride” is a prime-time toe tapper – and believe me, you’ll hit repeat many times with this one.
As these seven tracks play out (track placement is an art form here too), I am swept away by Ryan’s distinctive vocals. Whether heard alongside the lush arrangements of “Wild Sky,” the piano and strings balladry of “A Lifetime,” or with the soulful melodies of “Say Hello” (complete with more saxophone and a smooth 80s AOR Hollywood soundtrack beat), it is Ryan’s voice that bind these different sounds and styles together cohesively. Indeed, this stunning combination of a powerful vocal presence at the heart of a big-band rock-soul sound easily draws comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, with strong hints of The Old Crow Medicine Show and Matt Mays too.
“See You There” finds Kennedy craftily blurring the lines between rock and country, even adding a little John Mellencamp sound into mix, along with the well-timed blasts of the saxophone that quicken the pulse. Ryan demonstrates his ability to read minds too, with one of the verses here connecting back to the thoughts I just shared: “Springsteen on the radio / Winter turn to spring / Blue skies and tailwinds / It feels just like seventeen / I ain’t from here / But I ain’t from there / I’m from everywhere / So, I’ll see you there.” And with the arrival of “Burning Cult,” Ryan dials down the pace one last time with a piano and strings-based ballad that draws the album to a close – invigorating the senses in the process with a final blast of stunning vocal harmonies and instrumental intensity. “For you / You are my hate / You know you burn so dime / You know / You’ve been chasing me since the day I was born / Now I’m done crying over you / Crying over you.”
“Libertine” is an excellent third album from Ryan Kennedy – who certainly does not strike out here today. While it took this particular listener three attempts to finally connect with the music, I openly admit that in hindsight, I should have let it play out much sooner – as this collection of seven songs are ‘Home Run’ material all the way. So don’t be shy – jump in, buckle up, and prepare to go on your own musical “Fast Ride” with Ryan’s new tunes too.
Photo Credit: Gaelle Leroyer