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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1544

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The Guggenheim Grotto: Happy the Man
by George Graham

(UFO Music 1016 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/14/2009)

The revival of Celtic music in recent years has provided the inspiration for many Irish performers and bands, but there is more to the Irish music scene than Celtic on the one hand, and the bombastic rock of U2 on the other. This week, we have a very appealing sophomore release by a group whose stock in trade is finely crafted melodic pop with a strong acoustic undercurrent. The call themselves the Guggenheim Grotto, and their new CD is called Happy the Man.

Mick Lynch and Kevin May started performing and recording together in the early 2000s, and by 2005 had released their debut recording called Waltzing Alone, which was a hit in the band's home country, and also began to attract attention on this side of the Atlantic. They combined intelligent lyrics with pleasing vocal harmonies, and drew on influences going as far back as the Beatles for their tuneful songs. Along the way, multi-instrumentalist Shane Power became involved with the band's recording and production, and by this second release has become the third member of the group. For this second album, the Guggenheim Grotto added some light electronic sampling and more keyboards, but the sound maintains its acoustic textures. In fact, the group has ended up being categorized, for retail purposes, as folk, which I think they will probably acknowledge they are not. But their music does maintain the literate, often introspective quality of singer-songwriters. And sometimes there is an interesting contrast between the sunny-sounding music with occasionally downcast lyrics.

The combination of sounds on their CD is an interesting and clever one, mixing some vintage keyboard sounds with occasional samples together with things like mandolin and cello, plus prominent acoustic guitar and piano. Their vocals and harmonies are given a clean sonic treatment, which they can get away with with their disciplined approach and excellent pitch. Their influences run from the Beatles to Leonard Cohen to blues to the Smiths. As on their first album, the Guggenheim Grotto starts with the more upbeat tunes and slows down as the CD goes along, ending with the more contemplative material. There are a couple of guest musicians, such as backing vocalists, and the cellist and a pianist.

Leading off is one of two short instrumental interludes, called, appropriately, Intro. The spoken-word narration, performed by one Marian Hussey, provides an indication of the complexion of some of the lyrics. <<>>

That leads into the CD's most pop-oriented track, being marketed as a digital download single. It's called Fee Da Da Dee, but the nonsense title belies the interesting, fairly philosophical lyrics. <<>>

Her Beautiful Ideas is another tune that has potential as a single, with its upbeat sound, and love-song lyrics, albeit somewhat complicated ones. <<>>

Though much of the album has a fairly understated quality, the track Sunshine Makes Me High builds into a kind of "big rock ballad" sound. But the band does not get carried away with the cliches, and keeps it tasteful. <<>>

One of the more interesting tracks is The Girl with the Cards. It's kind of love-song with complications. The resonator guitar evokes a bluesy sound, adding a further twist. <<>>

The Guggenheim Grotto has a tendency to mix downcast lyrics with upbeat tunes. Just Not Just is a kind of observation of the basic unfairness of life, while the music bounces along. <<>>

Those of a certain age may find some amusement in the song Oh Nikita which on its surface is a lament by the protagonist that he has not achieved his life's goals, and he is almost 30. But one could also interpret the lyrics as being allegorical. Sonically, it's also an interesting mixture with the vintage keyboards. <<>>

The CD gets more musically contemplative toward the end. One of the gems it holds is called The Dragon with its mandolin-laden sound and fanciful lyrics. <<>>

Happy the Man ends with Heaven Has a Heart, a pretty tune with the CD's most downright pessimistic lyrics, performed by Lynch and May with just an acoustic guitar. <<>>

Happy the Man the new CD by the Irish group the Guggenheim Grotto, and not to be confused with the excellent 1970s progressive rock band called Happy the Man, is a first rate collection of intelligent, literate, melodic pop with influences running from the Beatles to contemporary sounds. Mick Lynch, Kevin May and Shane Power sounded as if they worked intensively in the studio, layering their parts in the finest obsessive popster tradition, going back to Brian Wilson or the Beatles. Their work paid off handsomely in a CD on which practically every track has something interesting and worthwhile to offer. It's a relative short album, at about 38 and a half minutes, but that's a good length for the kind of compact songs that the band serves up, and helps to keep the CD free from what could be considered filler material.

Our grade for sound quality is a rare "A." There are some studio tricks and sonic artifacts in the recording, but it's tastefully done, and maintains good sonic clarity. The CD also has surprisingly good dynamic range for something in this style, allowing the music to ebb and flow from soft to loud, and giving good impact to the drums especially.

Ireland is not usually thought as a land of melodic pop, but the Guggenheim Grotto defy the stereotype and create a thorough enjoyable multi-layered album that should be appealing to two or more generations of fans, from Baby Boomers to Generation Y fans of "emo."

(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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