The County Donegal born and Dublin residing Kevin Doherty’s career has been following dual courses over the last dozen years or so. Having established himself on the Irish music scene via the Pyros and Gooseberries he became a member of the internationally renowned Four Men And A Dog in the early 90s. But with a hiatus in band activity a decade later, Kevin recorded his first two solo albums in fairly quick succession. Whilst compared with Four Men they haven’t made any great impression this side of the Irish Sea so far, perhaps that is set to change as Kevin has now signed with Proper Records.
If his profile doesn’t improve significantly it will be somewhat of a travesty. Seeing Things is a very good album indeed. If Kevin perhaps displays touches of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Randy Newman and even Van Morrison, without directly sounding like any of those, it’s a sign of the quality of this CD that such comparisons can spring to mind. The starkly simple settings, generally involve a guitar or piano with a string section creating a nice point of distinction. His somewhat lugubrious voice wrapped around some literate, poetic word play littered with reference points, also suggests a sharp and well exercised mind at work.
Kevin doesn’t try to dazzle with oblique stanzas or arch couplets, his style is far too laconic for that, but amongst these outwardly simple stories lie some big questions and little clues. You might want to describe him as a romantic, in the sense of the artistic movement that is. His songs have a way of crossing boundaries, slipping between realms and even bending the fabric of time to their will. But they do so with such natural ease that there’s no turbulence to blow you off course while you listen, just a sense of quiet magic taking place. It’s a safe bet, none the less, that it’s the only record you’ll listen to this year, that uses the word Hippocrene, or that makes reference to the Varian Disaster.
In truth that latter reference from Poor Boys is picked up from his website that offers additional insight track by track. While such things clearly mark him as both literate and a thinker, it’s not at the expense of a good song, which in this case is about death in war and the reaction to that has remained constant from the year 9AD to now. It’s only the phrase, “Blood on the breastplates,” that suggests something arcane, but the emotional response is the same. The song works on all sorts of levels and the one you choose is up to you.
Seeing Things is neatly book ended by an aubade and a serenade, the opening and closing of the day. To Begin is a simple enough title, but again that website sows the seed that it’s an inauspicious fragment of the opening of Under Milkwood. A short song, it signals what is to come, with the lingering tremolo of Kevin’s voice against some simple plucked guitar, but with a rising swirl of string bringing us home, whilst the lyrics suggest hope and fear, but no guidance, just possibilities. Red Sun repeats the trick at the days end, with a might more comfort in companionship basking in the sunset. As if to emphasise the point Lisa O’Neill adds her voice to Kevin’s, but the extended instrumental finale sees a piano and those strings once more in ascension.
Esplendido Corazón also benefits from a vocal partner, this time it’s Charley Webb (of the Webb Sisters) in achingly beautiful form as she delivers the second and key verse, “And many’s the man of modest means is smiling to himself at the illusionary nature of material and wealth.” It’s not the only dart aimed in that direction as the valedictory, I’m Going Now, which offers, “I’m going now from bonds and from bosses, they privatised the boom, now they’ve socialised the losses.” It’s not all cock-a-snook, however, as Kevin admits, “But I have felt beloved all along.”
At the centre of the album are two tracks that encapsulate the anxiety of travel. The title track finds Kevin, “Slamming through clouds in a loud piece of shining steel.” He confesses it’s something that he dislikes so tends to drop into nervous songwriting mode. The result, possibly fuelled by a liberal sampling of the in flight shiraz, seems to have produced a fervid, hallucinatory encounter with Jesus, who seems to have one over Kevin with his feet on the ground and a course set to meet Kevin’s lover. I Wish I Was On A Train is a more straightforward desire to be in the arms of the one you love and the pain of separation.
Rambling Irishman shares the mid-air creation of Seeing Things and it’s perhaps the anxieties of the flight that have brought Kevin back to the Irish troubles. His profound wish for piece again seems to have taken a turn for the visionary as he sings, “I heard the armies clash at night I willed the all to settle, I saw the great elk taking flight through the lake mist and the nettles.”
It’s perhaps New York City (Going Back) and I Saw The Rose that emerge as the clinchers. The former has a loping ease and a great brass arrangement, with a subtle shading of overdriven electric piano and organ. There’s just the merest hint of Herbie Flowers telling contribution to Walk On The Wildside. I Saw The Rose meanwhile shares the waltz tempo of the title track and builds from something small and almost whispered, growing in confidence to end as a soaring string laden ballad of poignant beauty. It’s the sort of track that cults are built on.
Like a good friend that you get to know over years, Doherty has tales to tell that will keep you enthralled if you chose to follow his leads, his yarns, his philosophising and his passions. This is music for head and heart, but start with the ears, because if you lend him those for 40 minutes, the rest will surely follow.
Review by: Simon Holland
Album Stream: Seeing Things
Seeing Things is released on Proper Records 17th June 2013