Angelo Kelly & Family - Irish Heart (Review)

Irish Heart

The Irish-American Kelly Family are a popular musical acts in several European countries, but nowhere are they such megastars as in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Their album Over the Hump is one of the ten best selling albums of all time and all of the individual members are well known household names. Although the family infrequently still make music as a group, and very successful on top, they have chosen widely different paths for their solo careers, which sparked many top ten albums and are mostly aimed at the Central European market. Maite Kelly for example stayed in Germany, now sings in German and is a popular schlager singer, and Michael Patrick Kelly found his style as a pop rock musician. And now, Angelo Kelly fully embraces his Irish roots and went to full folklore mode.

The Kelly Family’s success was based around an authenticity usually not found in mainstream music yet containing a certain poppiness that made them commercially acceptable. The multi-generational clan was busy traveling all across Europe in order to make money from their music years before their popular acclaim and commercial success. Their nomadic lifestyle, “scruffy” looks and the fact that they relied on self made handcrafted music making (they wrote their songs, played various instruments and sang) were a clear departure from the perfectly polished pop and techno music that dominated the charts in the early 90s, and made them a huge multimedia phenomenon that still fascinates many people over 25 years later. Essentially, they rose from being street musicians to a level of success that put them on one level with Michael Jackson, The Beatles and Genesis in terms of stardom. The group’s characteristic sound consisted of a mix of traditional folk, powerful rock music and ABBA-esque pop. In a way, Angelo Kelly’s and his newly founded family’s most recent output reflects this classic style more than any of his siblings’ hits, and yet it somehow feels different. It sounds good but it tries so fricken hard to achieve that, and this can be heard in each second.

Let’s start with the title - Irish Heart. Their Irish origin has been an essential part of the group’s image, but it came naturally because it’s just who they were, the music just hinted at it. Now, what Angelo Kelly and his family do here goes a thin line between being proud of his heritage and knowing that the Irish image sells well, and that the Kelly Family fans who preferred their traditional folk-ish elements over the pop and rock aspects are desperately in need for new fuel that the other family members don’t provide. In fact, what Maite Kelly, who is probably the most famous Kelly offspring, does right now is as far from the group’s typical sound and look as possible: she’s a well dressed, unnaturally good looking pop star singing flawlessly over electronic dance beats. With a cover artwork showing deeply green highlands and a logo depicting a clover leaf, Angelo’s album couldn’t look more Irish, at least from the point of view from the non-Irish. It’s a bit as if an Austrian would make an album featuring images of mountains and a guy in lederhosen, that consists of modern rock played with traditional national instruments and call it Mountain Man... oh wait, Andreas Gabalier already did that and went triple platinum. Talk about using your culture as marketing tool.

What may sound like a negative review actually isn’t one, because it ultimately comes down to the music - and Irish Heart is a musically good album. And whether the artist’s focus on his roots is solely a commercial exploitation or not, the result is a positive one: it sparks an interest in foreign cultures that’s always a good thing. It’s not only a gimmick for the fans, it also causes a wide appreciation of sounds that are not usually found in our area, something that we need if we want to become a global multicultural society, although I am very sure this is not what Angelo Kelly had in mind, it just tries a bit too hard to have that intention.

Angelo was the youngest child of the original Kelly Family line up. Now he’s 37 and has a family of his own, namely a wife and 5 children, all but one of which take alternative turns singing (the youngest is 3 years old), some of which helped in the writing process, and some of which play the instruments heard on the album. It seems to be a fact that everyone in the Kelly Family, including the spouses, is a naturally gifted musician and singer. Consisting of both original tunes and cover versions (The Lord of the Dance, Oró Sé Do Bheatha 'Bhaile, Will Ye Go, Lassie Go, Paddy on the Railway, Danny Boy and… strangely, Massive Attack’s Teardrop), Irish Heart enchants by its down to earth music and graceful singing. Flutes, fiddles, acoustic guitars, jaw harps and drums are the essential instruments that form the distinctive soundscape that’s present throughout the album, and clear, angelic vocal performances by the females as well as emotive crooning by the males immediately make you sink into the greenfields shown on the cover. It’s devoid of any modern technology like electronic drum kits, synthesizers or Autotune, it feels natural and truly folkish. It’s an album that barely gives you a hint at its release year.

Singer-songwriter ballads such as Always Be There, Like the Movies or Love Side Effects show that this “new” Kelly Family has the same knack for hand crafted music that touches us in a big way. The song that shows this best has to be Let Go, a heart melting gem that feels like the antithesis of ABBA’s Slipping Through My Fingers, being about a mother that tries to let her sun go but can’t, and the son’s own wish to move on. But the album isn’t always as sentimental and slow paced: the title track as well as many of the covers are upbeat, and, in the most classic of ways, danceable.

Angelo Kelly & Family’s Irish Heart may not be the creative peak in the pool of the Kelly Family releases, but it’s definitely a good album that has not given in to modern day trends, and also doesn’t stray too far from the sound that made the group so big in the first place. The performances are lively and the music expressive all the way through. And that’s enough for great listening enjoyment.