Of Hooligans and Hootenannys
America, the new album by local band Romantica, hits all the expected notes of the alt-country genre: The hazy, humid washes of harmonica are there, as are the pedal steel guitars that shimmer like the noise of a field full of grasshoppers. But careful listeners will pause when they notice characters confessing, "I wanna play Wembly before I die/Wanna grow up and win the FA Cup." Time out. The FA Cup is a soccer competition. There are hooligans at this hootenanny.
The man responsible for this unorthodox Americana is Ben Kyle, who still speaks with a faint hint of the accent (he pronounces "tour" as "turr") picked up during a childhood spent in Belfast, Northern Ireland. When the musician, now in his mid-20s, was 13, his parents packed up their children and moved to Minnesota. "Seven kids," boasts the creamy-skinned, inky-haired Kyle when I meet him for lunch. He instantly senses my next question and laughs, "And they're not even Catholic."
When I ask him why his parents emigrated, he hesitates, searching for an easy way to deliver a complex explanation.
"My dad just had a sense he had to come here—my parents led church groups in Ireland, and he felt drawn to move, to continue his work here." Kyle's folks were part of a Christian movement that favored de-institutionalized worship, and they led mixed groups of Catholics and Protestants in informal home fellowship services.
"They'd flip back and forth between holding it in a Catholic side of town one week, and a Protestant side the next," he says. "It was a crazy environment in Northern Ireland." At these assemblies, Kyle's father would play his own compositions on the guitar. "I was around a lot of live guitar, sing-along music," remembers Kyle. "When I started picking up the guitar, I naturally used it to write my own songs, 'cause that's how I saw it used by my dad and my older brother."
The Kyle family's move to America coincided with the rise of the No Depression era. "My sister started listening to the Jayhawks and Golden Smog. In '95, I saw Bob Dylan, the Jayhawks, and Victoria Williams at the Midway Stadium in St. Paul, and after that, that was sort of the direction my music took.
"Sometimes I hate to answer when people ask me what genre I work in," Kyle admits. "'Oh yeah, another one of those.' But I can only do what feels natural—it doesn't feel like I'm making a choice."
The result of Kyle doing what feels natural to him is America, an album of lush, richly orchestrated pop-folk made rural by twangy pedal steel and keening fiddle parts (courtesy of occasional Golden Smog collaborator Jessy Greene). As the magical word "Mississippi" drifts across the path of these softly ambling melodies, bass lines from Luke Jacobs push them along, making sure they meet their train on time. Jaunty mariachi horns dance playfully across the pages of a family scrapbook on "The National Side." Aching ballad "La Traviada" mourns the backcountry skiing party mowed down by the Durrand Glacier avalanche that killed pioneering snowboarder Craig Kelly.
On "Quiver," Kyle seduces in a slow croon, "I want to take that quiver/And put it all over me" while guitar chords unfurl like streamers drooping from the school gym ceiling after the dance has ended.
But how would all this play in the old hometown? In the four years since Romantica's debut, It's Your Weakness That I Want, Kyle has produced one recording studio (a project with his father) and two children (a project with his wife). There hasn't been much time for bringing his music to a larger audience. Kyle hopes to remedy that with a tour in the fall.
"The sense I get is that it would go over really well [in Ireland and the U.K.]—people really eat up the Americana," Kyle says. Just imagine, Mississippi girls: In a far-off land, pints may soon be raised to toast your exotic charms—perhaps as soon as the Glentoran v. Linfield football (ahem) match on Boxing Day. Cheers to that.
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