The Real McKenzies are celebrating thirty years as a band with a brand new album, Songs of the Highlands, Songs of the Sea (Fat Wreck Chords). The album itself was preceded by the release of the single “Leave Her Johnny”, a traditional 19th-century sea shanty that has been performed by many folk acts over the years, and a fitting example of what the album has in store.
Songs of the Highlands, Songs of the Sea is an album of 12 traditional shanties and folk tunes; the title really gives it away in that some are songs of the Scottish Highlands, and others are songs of sea fairing and the sailor’s life.
Time-honoured Scottish drums and bagpipes open the album, with distorted guitars soon joining in, setting out the classic Real McKenzies sound of Gaelic punk rock with a strong traditional folk feel. Foot stomping, fist pumping, hey! shouting, “Scotland the Brave” is one of the unofficial national anthems of Scotland and is as good an opener as you’d expect. I know if I were Paul McKenzie I would open every live show like this!
“A Red, Red Rose”, a poem by the famed Robert Burns, is one of several songs on this album penned by the legendary lyricist and voice of the true Scotsman; “Ye Jacobites By Name” and the stomping “My Heart is in the Highlands” are also penned by his hand. The expected Real McKenzies sound continues on through “The Green Hills of Tyrol” and the lead single “Leave Her Johnny” and “My Heart’s in the Highlands”.
These songs are legendary for a reason and were written to be performed. I can well imagine a live show, unexpectedly finding myself in the pit, singing my heart out for Scotland in much the same way I sing for Ireland with the Dropkick Murphys. It is important that these folk songs remain as folk songs; that is, songs for the people, to be performed by and for the people, interpreted as needed for the time and audience. While nationalism and pride in your home are often negative traits, these songs remind us that we can be proud without it being at the expense of others.
At this point, the album takes a step down for me. We’re halfway through, I’m fired up, I’m ready to rock and next we have “Sloop John B” performed with acoustic guitar. It’s perfectly good, but I don’t see what it offers above or beyond every other version (Beach Boys excepted). There’s nothing wrong with it, and perhaps those with more polished taste will appreciate the darker feel than the Californian Pop version, but I keep waiting for the electric guitars to kick in with a big fast chorus in the style of so many 90s punk covers. Maybe it would sit better, grouped with other slower songs?
“Drunken Sailor”, picks up where it should be going for me: fast, mean, the way a shanty should be delivered, with the pounding drums and distorted guitars, and shouted lyrics and the cold sea wind rattling the windows, fogged with the breath of a crowd of drunk sailors.
“The Bonnie Ship The Diamond” takes a more traditional folky sound, which is to be expected for the band, but isn’t really to my taste. The Real McKenzies have always felt more like a folk band that listen to punk rather than a punk band that listen to folk, and in that is the uniqueness of their sound. I fear I lean more toward the punk than the folk, so perhaps it is lost on me.
“Dead Mans Chest” caught me out, opening with the riff of “American Jesus” by Bad Religion, complete with pick slide into the first verse. It’s an interesting take on both songs, but the familiarity of the Bad Religion classic takes away from the familiar “yo hoho and a bottle of rum” lyrics for me. I honestly wondered if they had chucked in a Bad Religion cover, and although it is a classic in this scene, it’s not what most would consider a traditional anthem!
“Swansea Town” is sung by Brenna Red from the Last Gang, and it takes the song in a similar direction to “The Bonnie Ship The Diamond”, with winsome melodies and a feeling of sadness that carries the words through the song.
Closing track “Blow the Man Down” is another traditional shanty sounds like it was a lot of fun to record, but I’m not sure where its place on this album really is. Much as with “Sloop John B”, it is a faithful performance, but it doesn’t feel like the Real McKenzies have really made it their own in any way, and in part that sums up this album. In places it is a Real McKenzies album that just happens to be traditional songs rather than originals, but in part it is also the Real McKenzies playing some traditional songs in a traditional way. I am almost certain these songs would be incredible live, and since they are on tour in Europe from January 2023, I shall make the effort to get out and see them and confirm my suspicions!