Celtic Thunder's Ryan Kelly Dazzles With His Solo Debut, In Time
Oct 24, 2010 (Updated Nov 4, 2010)
Review by Erin McCarty
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:gorgeous vocals, well-crafted original songs, the Moy song, Broken Things, Heaven Bound, cover shot
Cons:only available for purchase online
The Bottom Line: If Celtic Thunder hasn't given you the privilege, take this opportunity to get acquainted with the magnificent Ryan Kelly.
This year has seen the release of several highly anticipated albums, including Clay Aiken‘s collection of standards from the 50s and 60s, the Irish Rovers‘ 40th-anniversary CD, two LOST soundtracks and two offerings from Celtic Thunder. I was especially anxious to hear the Celtic Thunder Christmas release, but the one album I awaited most eagerly was from my favorite of its members, Ryan Kelly. As he began to send out messages on Facebook and Twitter about the recording process and offer up sneak peeks on ReverbNation, my excitement increased. I had it in my head, though, that we wouldn’t be seeing the album until next year, so when I got word that In Time would be released this month, when I’m already on Celtic Thunder overload thanks to the concert, the Christmas album and Neil Byrne’s EP, which just arrived in the mail, I was one happy camper.
Recommend this product?
I wasn’t the only one. CD Baby, the website from which the album is currently available, received so many inquiries about it that its release was pushed up by a few days, and along with many other fans, I stayed up late into the night, checking every few minutes to see if it had gone live yet. First thing the next morning, my search for Ryan Kelly still returned no results, so I turned my attention to the previous night’s episode of Criminal Minds, which starred Sterling “Little Ben Linus” Beaumon, and when he was done thoroughly creeping me out, I returned to CD Baby to find that in my absence, the album had come… and gone. In the first half hour, I learned, every copy they had in stock sold out. So I sighed, put in my backorder and ordered the MP3, which tided me over until I had my physical copy of the album. And now, my first impressions of In Time…
On Simon and Garfunkel’s Old Friends boxed set, there is a live version of Poem On an Underground Wall before which Art Garfunkel memorably recounts the calamitous tale of the photo shoot for Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., from which they hoped to walk away with “the perfect James Dean shot”. Well, Ryan Kelly has managed it here, and I tip my hat to photographer Padraig Donnelly, who is also responsible for the striking shots that serve as backdrops to the liner notes, and Stuart Medcraft and Aidan Donnelly, who are credited with designing the cover and artwork. Ryan, dressed in jeans, a white t-shirt and a brown leather jacket, leans against a dilapidated building, his face inscrutable. A row of windows is behind him, but the light is most arresting toward the bottom of the photo, where sunshine pours in through a jagged hole in the wall, making the shadow he casts especially pronounced. It’s one of the most aesthetically pleasing album covers I’ve ever seen - but then, of course, I am rather partial to the subject matter...
I also appreciated reading Ryan's note of gratitude within and would like to offer my own for his decision to include his lyrics. By the time the album arrived I'd pretty much memorized them all, but there were a few lines of which I was uncertain, and anyway, I generally find that being able to read the lyrics makes a song easier to connect with, especially when I'm first familiarizing myself with it.
In Time includes 11 tracks, one of which can be ordered as an MP3 individually without buying the entire album. Though he’s released it under a different title, it’s one of several songs that Ryan had up on his music pages in demo form. Not all of those songs have made it to this album; I presume he’s holding them back for future releases. When I downloaded the MP3, I took a leap and guessed, based on my Googling efforts regarding the tracks on which I had no previous information, that Ryan has full writer’s credit on nine of the eleven tracks, with one being a cover and another a pre-existing poem for which he composed a melody. I was right on target except in the case of In Too Deep, which he co-wrote with Kieran Lavery. The variety and intricacy of these songs reveals an artist who is not just a talented performer but a burgeoning songwriter of exceptional caliber.
Playing the piano and keyboards, which are so prominent on several tracks, is Dave L. Cooke, who also produced and arranged the album and, like Brendan Monaghan, who plays pipes, whistles and the bodhran, is a famliar name to Celtic Thunder fans. So is vocalist Charley Bird, whose lovely voice augments several songs on this album and who performed a duet with Ryan on Celtic Thunder Christmas. Other instrumentalists contributing to this album include guitast Andy Saphir, percussionist Tony Harris, lead violinist Oliver Lewis, violinist Paddy Roberts, viola player Lucy Morgan and cellist Nerys Richards.
Emily - I knew right off the bat that Ryan wrote this one, since he said as much after he put about a minute of it up as a sneak peek. I’m curious as to just who Emily is. A real person from his past? A fictitious flame? Or does he, like a young Paul Simon, have an odd fascination with Emily Dickinson? That I don’t know just makes this opening track all the more intriguing. It’s a fairly bouncy but angsty song backed by electric guitar, and it makes a perfect bookend with the album’s closing track, as it has to do with a young man who is anxious to get out of his “one-horse town” but finds himself, at the last moment, torn due to the love of a local woman. Romance and ambition battle within him, while we also get her perspective through Bird, who captures the heartache of realizing that you’re about to lose someone you’ve always taken for granted. This is probably the track I can most readily imagine hearing on the radio. “I can’t let myself be drawn into your world. It’s too late for me to stay for just one girl.”
In Too Deep - This track features lovely legato piano backing, along with the occasional strings. The verses proceed slowly, as though he’s grasping at images through the haze of a dissipating dream. It seems to describe a relationship that has gone sour; he yearns to make reparations and such scenarios haunt him, mirage-like, only to leave him feeling more empty than ever before, especially since he feels responsible for her disappearance. And yet there is hope, notably in the line “I’ll play guitar again,” as there is a solace to be found in one’s passions - particularly music - that can help one heal after even the most devastating loss. “It’s over now. What could’ve been could never be, yeah. So I’ll move on. I’ll find a new song. I’ll find a new me.”
Make You Proud - This song, another sneak peek that Ryan offered, first made me think of Taylor Hicks’ Do I Make You Proud and Clay Aiken’s Proud of Your Boy, both of which have to do with growing up and doing well by one’s parents, but some of the lines, such as “Tell me you need me,” suggest a more romantic angle. In any case, it’s about the realization of having fallen short of expectations and trying to be a better person. I particularly love the earnest delivery of the line, “Just don’t lose your faith along the way.” Electric guitars add a nice twang to this up-tempo song with a redemptive twist. “No matter how it turns out to be, all I wanna do is make you proud of me.”
Heaven Bound - The first time I listened to In Time, I played each of the tracks individually, and somehow I missed this one, so when I played the album through as a whole, it stopped me cold. My first thought: Is he really singing about what I think he’s singing about? My second: I hope this isn’t autobiographical. Of all the tracks on this album, this is the one that best reflects Ryan’s musical theater background as he takes us on a dark journey into a shattered soul tormented by someone he thought that he could trust. “He’s Heaven bound, but he’s closer to Inferno in that Hell that only I know.” A searing social commentary through the lens of one meticulously drawn character, this is a gutsy track exploring a subject I have never heard tackled in song before: child molestation.
My first inclination was that the song was connected to the pedophilia crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, though the backdrop of the funeral of the man in question may account for the abundance of religious imagery. Clearly, whatever his vocation, he was widely respected. Given the reference to "another night assault," I suppose it could even be the speaker's father. In any case, it's a startling topic, and his performance is riveting, with the soulful back-up singers on the chorus emphasizing the disconnect between how this man is viewed by the townspeople and what the speaker knows about him. The only track to incorporate bagpipes, it’s the biggest surprise on the album, and I’m drawn to Ryan’s empathetic vocals and the way the careful orchestration slowly builds to heighten the turmoil. Utterly gripping. “I don’t blame them all, but those whose eyes were blind helped him leave this wreck behind. The years aren’t kind. Will he ever let me be, this pillar of my community?”
Go If You Want To - Ryan adopts a wounded and waspish manner for this rant against a woman who has spurned the speaker. It’s probably the harshest-sounding of the tracks, with whining electric guitars and stinging words - even a bit of mild profanity. It sounds like we’re hearing a long-drawn-out argument in its death throes; tired of fighting the inevitable, he throws up his hands and feigns indifference, but his acidic manner betrays his true feelings. “You can go if you want to, or stay, I don’t mind. Just remember, if you leave me now, there won’t be another time…”
Secret Bit of Right From Wrong - Peppy percussion and a repeated succession of swift violin strokes set the lively tone for this song that’s as infectious in its own way as Simon and Garfunkel’s Feelin’ Groovy. After the darkness of the last two tracks, it’s exhilarating to hear this joyful cry of a man with a new lease on life. There’s acknowledgment of past wrongs - particularly of the drinking variety - as the speaker basks in a rare sense of ecstasy with a song in his heart. Listening to this is like glimpsing Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning. “Your perfection caused my resurrection; that’s why I sing…”
Get Over You - Piano is in prominence once more on this mid-tempo song that again deals with a broken relationship. Ryan performs a harmonious duet in the chorus with Bird, who conveys an equally powerful sense of longing. There’s a lot of self-deprecation sprinkled throughout this album; sometimes these guys make amends and sometimes they merely wallow, but most of them mess up and freely admit it. Here, I love the equation of sensitivity with masculinity, along with the clever wordplay that fills the verses. Another song that feels like it’s itching to become a radio hit. “I wish that I could get over you. I wish it stopped when we said goodbye. I wish the memories would just fade away; if I was a man, maybe I’d cry.”
Broken Things - This was the first of Ryan’s solo efforts that I ever heard, and I was left breathless by the vulnerability that keeps a quaver in his voice throughout the song. It’s the only one on the album that Ryan didn’t have a hand in writing; credit here goes to Julie Miller, a singer-songwriter best known in contemporary Christian music circles. The main distinction between that intimate acoustic guitar-backed demo and this studio version is a bit more in the way of instrumentation, especially violins. Ryan also employs slightly different delivery on a couple of lines, and his accent seems a bit more pronounced here.
At first listen, this could be taken for a love song, but the air of total supplication and need for renewal suggests a plea for something deeper, especially with the hints of Scripture in the lyrics. It’s the prayer of a man who has hit his nadir and can’t extract himself from the depths of despair on his own. This gentle song ushered me into a whole new understanding of Ryan, and it remains one of my favorites. “I heard that you make old things new, so I’ll give these pieces all to you. If you want it, you can have my heart.”
Not Far Apart * - This is the track that is the only one you can get online by itself at CD Baby, which is a nice gesture that I presume has to do with the fact that it’s a Christmas song and is primarily intended to console those who are mourning. I’m fairly confident that years prior to hearing Ryan’s demo last year, I received this poem by Wanda (Bencke) White in my Inbox; it seems to have been floating around for at least a decade, usually under the title My First Christmas in Heaven or Spending Christmas With Jesus Christ, which is how Ryan originally presented it on his MySpace page. The decision to rename it distances the song from specific seasonal connections within the context of the track list.
Ryan wrote an original melody for this reflection from the perspective of someone who has recently died and is trying to reach out to comfort those left behind. It reminds me a bit of both the Mary Elizabeth Frye poem Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep and NewSong’s The Christmas Shoes. While I confess to finding the latter, a ballad that dominates the all-Christmas music play lists, a tad mawkish, Ryan wisely hangs back here, keeping this slightly altered version, which is accompanied by delicate piano that trips upon the ears like dancing snowflakes, tender but understated. I know that he’s sung this one at Christmas Eve services back home, and there’s an air of humble sincerity about it.
This song, incidentally, is one of the reasons I’m not particularly bothered by his use of the word “Christ” in the chorus of the closing track, which originally gave me pause. I choose to interpret the emphatic interjection as a fervent vow rather than a casual curse, and his decision to set this to music and record it, along with Broken Things, suggests that I might not be too off base. “Have a merry Christmas, and wipe away that tear. Remember, I’m spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.”
Perfect Man - In Celtic Thunder, Ryan has been cast as the Heartbreaker; here, he sarcastically skewers the whole notion of Bad Boy attraction, snarling his way through a bluesy, organ-heavy ballad about a woman undone by her gravitation toward Leader of the Pack-style men. Both characters are richly drawn, the silly romantic clinging to her unrealistic visions and the ne’er-do-well who seems to have sauntered in from the shady corner of a Jim Croce song. It took me a couple of times through to realize just what Ryan is doing in this snarky number, but it’s a fun throwback that also serves as a warning against favoring danger in relationships, and Ryan shows a real storyteller’s flair. “All her friends tell her how he’s gonna do her wrong, how she’s changed with her mini-skirt and her high heels on, but they just don’t understand; he’s her perfect man.”
The Village That They Call The Moy - Ryan Kelly was pretty firmly fixed as my favorite member of Celtic Thunder from the moment I heard him sing Desperado, but it wasn’t until a few months later that Broken Things led me to his demo of this song, introducing me to Ryan the songwriter, which took my appreciation for him to a whole new level. Odes to one’s hometown and songs about emigration are incredibly prominent in Irish music. Within the Celtic Thunder repertoire, we have Mountains of Mourne, The Homes of Donegal, Come By the Hills and Take Me Home, among others, while my beloved Irish Rovers have recorded such songs as the upbeat The Boys Come Rollin’ Home, the tender Bonnie Kellswater, the reflective Lincoln’s Army and the despondent Farewell to Nova Scotia (which is Canadian but has a very Celtic flavor to it). Up until last year, my favorite song of this type was their rendition of The Isle of Innisfree, a stirring instrumental version of which plays in the background of the John Wayne film The Quiet Man.
Then I heard The Village That They Call the Moy, and it immediately took its spot at the top of the hierarchy. In the song, an elderly man who left his hometown long ago explains his malaise to a fellow bar patron, a youth with the means and freedom to wander at will. A sense of raw anguish permeates that first homemade recording, featuring nothing but Ryan’s heartfelt vocals accompanied by his acoustic guitar; although the chorus indicates “It’s there I was born and it’s there I belong, and it’s there my last days I’ll enjoy,” his vocals pierce right to the soul, suggesting that getting back there might never actually happen. I listened to this demo countless times, particularly in the aftermath of the LOST finale, during which it was perfectly in synch with the melancholy I was feeling over leaving the Island, as it were, and as much as I love this full-blown version, I can’t help hoping that at some point, Ryan will put the demo on an album, or at least make it available to listen to on his website again. It's there that the regret of the aged sage reigns supreme, while the studio version embraces the young man's more naive perspective.
In this edition of what I consider to be Ryan’s signature song, he quickens the pace, giving it a sprightly feel, and after reading all of his giddy posts in anticipation of this album, including his thrill at hearing professional musicians playing his songs, I feel like three decades’ worth of exuberance has been poured into this track. Instead of feeling wistful, it just comes across as pure gratitude to an upbringing in a town that so nurtured his creative spirit. After all, though Ryan did leave the Moy, the separation was not very long-term; now, when he’s not on the road, he makes his home there, and this joyous tribute to his tiny village acknowledges both that it was worth it to depart in order to chase his dreams and that he will always come back. I especially love the addition of the Irish whistles, which further root the song in that green isle I love so well. I doubt it will be long before this one starts getting the mileage of those old classics from many years ago; I can think of no other song that has so instantly transported me and made me nostalgic for a particular place, even though I‘ve never seen it. Maybe someday I will. “Leavin’, it never it easy. ‘There’s no place like home’ ’s what they say. Well, if it’s really that bad and it makes you so sad, sure, what’s the point movin’ away?”
“It’s a Moy man that I’ll always be,” Ryan declares through the vehicle of the grizzled emigrant, and every track carries evidence of his heritage. His smoky brogue creeps into the crevices of each phrase so that a deeper level of musicality seeps through. Words on a page could never adequately capture the qualities of Ryan Kelly’s voice, so seek out the first solo album of this versatile Irish charmer and listen for yourself. It won’t be his last.
Because I long to make it to the Moy myself one day and recount my experience in our Travel section, this is a part of Texas-Swede's RIP or Save Travel Write-Off.
Celtic Thunder * Celtic Thunder: Act Two * Take Me Home * Celtic Thunder: The Show * Take Me Home DVD * I'll Be Home for Christmas (Paul Byrom) * If I Could Cry (Paul Byrom) * Celtic Thunder in Concert 2009 * It's Entertainment * It's Entertainment DVD * Celtic Thunder Christmas * Celtic Thunder in Concert 2010 * Sensitive Souls (Neil Byrne)
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