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KIERON MEANS "North American Songs & Ballads - Run Mountain"
The Tradition Beares LTCD3004

This CD is the latest in "The Tradition Bearers" series; released through the auspices of the good folks who produce this magazine. Before anyone cries "nepotism!" I should, perhaps, state that I'm not a staff writer for The Living Tradition, nor am I getting paid for this review. I'm writing it simply because this album is so damn good, somebody needs to say so!

Kieron Means is a 26 year-old American singer and guitarist who grew up in Scotland and Lancashire, surrounded by traditional music and songs. While the term "tradition bearer" might, to many, imply a more elderly person, one listen to this CD proves Means' incontestable right to be regarded as exactly that. Indeed, throughout these "North American Songs and Ballads," Means demonstrates exactly what "traditional" singing is all about. He's not only mastered a repertoire and style, but also absorbed whole strata of the processes and values that form the bedrock of this material.

Ah, the material... Means states in the booklet notes: "of all the music I heard, it was the old-time rhythms, melodies and close harmonies, the tales within the ballads, and the blues I liked best. " These are, at heart, "simple" songs, but not "simplistic ones." There's a deeply powerful, profound simplicity to lines like: "John Lover went to the war, John Lover's gone." Just eleven syllables here, but five whole verses in many a songwriter's attempts at "traditional sounding" efforts. Or, "When it was fair and dry I prayed for rain, but when the rain did fall, the weeds they grew so tall, it's then I wished the sun would shine again" which encapsulates the eternal dilemma of every farmer that ever there was or is in just a few lines. Few of these 14 tracks clock in at much more than three minutes ("Boll Weevil" is a second under two).

The inherent economy of language leaves absolutely no room for vocal histrionics, and Means delivers every line as directly as you'd answer the question: "what's the time, please?" That isn't to suggest that he's in any way lacking as a singer (his voice is sublime), but merely confirms his total commitment to his songs. Likewise, he demonstrates superb instrumental technique without ever resorting to "showboating." Whereas the "solo" albums of many artists come packed to the gunwales with guest musicians, Means employs just two - Sara Grey on vocals and banjo, and Kate Lissauer on fiddle. Their contributions are wholly complimentary and utterly flawless.

For those who require handy comparisons, it's worth noting that Means' reading of "Hard Killing Floor" would have qualified as a "stand-out" track on Bob Dylan's eponymous debut album, "Red Rocking Chair" will induce ecstasy in any of the legion of Gillian Welch fans who hear it, and the aforementioned "John Lover" is as irresistibly communicative as anything from peak-era Pete Seeger. Meanwhile, "The Shark Song," (the sole "self-composed" song here), offers a tantalising glimpse into what might lie ahead for this modest yet authoritative tradition bearer. For now, we've got "Run Mountain," which is, quite simply, a towering achievement.

Stephen Hunt

To Hear Some Sample Tracks Click Here (Needs Real Player)

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This album was reviewed in Issue 53 of The Living Tradition magazine.