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James Kahn: By the Risin' of the Sea
(Independent release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/6/2022)
In the world of folk music, before the rise of the singer-songwriters, it was reviving traditional styles that gave one credibility. Whether it was old-time Gospel tunes, work songs, Appalachian fiddle tunes or jug band music, folk musicians would try to be as authentic as possible, back in the day. And there are still advocates for reviving the old songs. Another style to which folk musicians would occasionally direct their energy was sea shanties. Songs by sailors, telling stories, often exaggerated, were sung in a usually a cappella setting, since there tended to be not many musical instruments found on old sailing ships.
In 2019, thanks to the weirdness social media, there was a bit of sea shanty fad making the rounds on TicToc and the like. Perhaps that was the inspiration for this week’s album, but James Kahn has created a new recording of contemporary music in the sea shanty style, addressing the current state of the world. It’s called By the Risin’ of the Sea, subtitled Shanties for Our Time.
Its creator, James Kahn has one of the more interesting biographies we have encountered. He describes himself a lifetime storyteller, who also loved making music. He got his first short story published in Playboy magazine while he was still in college. Figuring that he would probably never be able to make a living as a writer, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor, and plunged into it fully. But the hectic schedule left him little time for writing and making music, so he opted for taking a job as an emergency room physician, which ironically, gave him more control of his schedule, and also seeing trauma and pulling people back from near death gave him inspiration for his science fiction writing. After his first novel was published, in 1981, he received a phone call at the Southern California hospital where he was working from the producers of the movie ET the Extraterrestrial seeking technical consulting for portraying medical procedures. He also ended up appearing in the film as an extra. He had an encounter with director Steven Spielberg, who after reading Kahn’s novel invited him to write the novelization for his film Poltergeist. There followed Kahn’s official novelization of The Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and several others. His writing got him into TV, serving as Supervising Producer of Star Trek: Voyager and Xena: Warrior Princess.
But he was drawn back in to doing music, and has released four albums, some with songs about historical figures, and also a children’s album.
His musical colleague who has worked with him on previous recordings, David West, suggested doing an album inspired by sea shanties, and Kahn went to work and created By the Risin’ of the Sea.
Like classic sea shanties, the music is mostly a cappella but there are some folk-style instruments including guitar, accordion, penny whistles and even bones for percussion. His colleagues on the album included West, and Dougie Clegg on the vocals, which are often overdubbed to create the four-part or more harmonies, with guest appearances from among others Gabe Witcher from the Punch Brothers and Glen Phillips from Toad the Red Sprocket.
The album’s subtitle “Shanties for Our Time” is definitely apprepriate and indeed the songs deal with global warming, the pollution of the sea, refugees seeking asylum, and the COVID pandemic, along with some more traditional nautical tales. It’s all very well done, with the vocal harmonies pitch perfect and the sparse instrumental accompaniment just right.
Opening is the title track The Risin’ of the Sea about climate induced sea level rise, and the global consequences. It’s superbly done. <<>>
Following is a very contemporary tale, In the COVID Times, also in the classic sea shanty style, with a little self-censorship to the lyrics. <<>>
A track called 2020: Ship of Fools also has nautical images, but is likely allegorical, perhaps looking forward to calmer seas after a bad year. <<>>
Old sea shanties were often about whaling ships. James Kahn and company put it in a more contemporary context in No More a Whalin’ from a conservation standpoint. <<>>
Bucket o’ Bones is the story of an apparent tourist cruise from hell. <<>>
Another of the highlights of the album is O the Ocean Rolls about Cuban refugees attempting to make the crossing to Florida in a flimsy boat. <<>>
Taking a more mythical bent is a song called Cast on the Water about a man trying to find his brother lost at sea. <<>>
Another very contemporary set of lyrics comes on the song Island of Dreams, in which what appears in the distance to be a beautiful island turns out to be a big floating lagoon of plastic garbage in the ocean. <<>>
The album ends with another powerful statement on the state of the world, Sundown about the loss of species and ecosystems. <<>>
Despite the bit of a sea shanty fad on social media, there have not been a lot of good recordings in the style. James Kahn’s new release By the Risin’ of the Sea is a brilliant work, elevating the classic traditional style into the 21st Century with articulate original lyrics sung with excellent vocal harmonies, and understated instrumental accompaniment. The vocal style can impart a distinctive emotional impact giving the lyrics added weight.
Our grade for sound quality is an “A.” The vocals are cleanly recorded with just the right amount of reverberation to fill them out, and the instruments are also rendered warmly and authentically.
Singing sea shanties can be fun, especially in a place like a pub with friends, but James Kahn has brought the genre to a new level, and the result is a most memorable album.
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