Second Best (Foghorn/MGM)
Well of course John Kennedy would call the second set of his career songs collections “second best”. If he’d called it something like “the other bits”, “warmed up leftovers” or “oh no, not me again”, none of us would have been surprised. This way he gets a play on words, a dig at himself, and a reminder he’s been around long enough to warrant at least two sets of favourite songs before we have stopped laughing: result.
If self-deprecation wasn’t already a sign, if the fact that the sub-title to one 2007 song alternates between “one way ticket to Palookaville” and “one way ticket to Erskineville” escapes you, or you didn’t spy the first song on this collection is called BrisVegas, let me advise you that John Francis Kennedy is particularly Australian. So very east coast once-in-Brisbane-long-time-Sydney (with a decent stint in Europe in there too) to be specific.
The most obvious reflection of this is Kennedy’s sometimes romantic, sometimes comic, sometimes dogged and sometimes casual use of Australian locations. Again, to be specific, mostly inner Sydney. That’s the territory also mapped out by another fine Sydney songwriter Perry Keyes, though Kennedy’s milieu is not as gritty and hard surfaced as Keyes.
He is though as observant as Keyes, attending to fine details of clothing and attitudes as much as street names and old shops. Some of his lines have the double dose pleasure of being funny on first hearing and rather telling on second, an effect which is enhanced with a voice that sometimes just seems to be taking the piss. Even when it’s not.
Speaking of his voice, yes, when he is not dropping down to a Johnny Cash-ish timbre he has always sounded a fair bit like Elvis Costello – which is what caught the ears of some of us way back when he first appeared as the presidential JFK & The Cuban Crisis. (In typical fashion, if you remember from a more recent review of Kennedy’s work, one of his recent bands was called JFK & The Midlife Crisis. )
It’s not the only thing he shares with another chronicler of the inner-west, Bernie Hayes: both of them deserve more attention and both have a fondness for an old fashioned melody, such as Johnny Does Jazz, or one of the rare failures in this collection, Goodbye Regret.
Though he is less a romantic and more comic than Hayes, and also more widely spread in his musical styles, which can be jangly pop, country and its simpler Cash offshoot, bright pop rock, some almost lush fare, and even (in Sun King Rising and his cover of Scientists’ Swampland) a bit of scungy lowriding boogie.
In that sense – and yes, here’s another reference – there’s a definite Paul Kelly approach often. And that includes the variety in backing musicians through several bands, and his willingness – no, it’s more accurate to say his eagerness – to continue a tradition of referring to, or playing on, or directly quoting other writers and songs in whole sections or titles or lines.
References abound: to Losing My Religion in Someone’s Dad; to From Saint Kilda To Kings Cross in From St Peters To Kings Cross; to The Beatles in Strawberry Hills Forever; to Johnny Loves Jazz in, well, Johnny Does Jazz. And that’s just a sample.
If the Kelly comparison does highlight that Kennedy doesn’t have the ability of that Melbourne-via-Adelaide-and-Sydney songwriter to touch the deepest emotion, it isn’t unreasonable to say that not being quite as good Kelly still leaves room for a pretty fair rep to be earned.
Which isn’t too bad a result from your second best batch of songs is it?