Released Nov. 2011, Fresh Water in the Salton Sea is one of those albums that was made for driving down a country road and some deep thinking and feeling. Probably the best album, considered as a whole, that I have heard in the last two years, and certainly one of the best I have ever heard, Fresh Water in the Salton Sea should help pave the way for Kennedy to rise to the top. This album is what country music, folk music, songwriting, melody, and being a musician are all about. Frankly, whatever is reviewed on the album won’t do it justice. Only listening will get the point across. “It’s been a long, long time/ Since I’ve had a bolt of lightning/ Catch me by surprise/” Kennedy sings on “the Captain and the Highway,” and this album accomplishes that because it proves there’s still grassroots, real country music out there.
The whole of the album is about movement, physical, temporal, and emotional. This album is deep stuff, but also has the folksy Red Dirt country sound and style of a naturally-plainspoken rural troubador. There’s profound in the day-to-day.
Two of the songs on Fresh Water in the Salton Sea are about physical driving, “AM Radio,” and “Cold Goodnight.” In AM Kennedy talks about a journey home, and how music is like a lifeline. The radio reception is all that counts.“Pushing my luck against the dial/ taking bets against the fields.” It’s a simple song, with an engaging, laid-back groove that leads directly to the replay button. Now mainstream new country has its place, and Justin Moore definitely sounds catchy when he sings “Flyin’ Down a Back Road,” but there’s more out there.
Unlike current country music fare that often describes cliches of cruising around with as many snazzy buzzwords as possible, Kennedy, in this album, actually hews down to some profound insights, and approaches even typical subjects of love and loss with 100-proof distillations of experience that defy cliche. Though the emotions may be universal, there are ways to approach them that lend some immediacy more than just catchy chorus hooks of today’s top country acts. “War with Myself,” for example, talks about a person’s struggle with some less pleasing aspects of his behavior towards others, and has a cool chorus backup that gives it a kind of Gospel sound with a contemporary twist.
“Home to Me,” gets a good guitar lick and rhythm going, and Kennedy’s strong vocals kick in, creating the kind of exceptionally strong tracks that characterize the album. Kennedy’s voice is dynamic and strong, full of a range of experiences, hard-fought like country should be. “Home to Me,” talks about the universal language of music and how it’s a locus point for our own internal conception of what home means. “I don’t speak the language/ There ain’t no need to/ Some things you know without a doubt/ I know he’s singin’/ A song from memory/ Or maybe it’s the other way around.” Top-notch guitar picking doesn’t hurt either, as the tune becomes a self-reflexive comment on its own ability to connect to the listener.
In “I’ve Got Some Leaving to do,” Kennedy traces the pattern of emotionally letting go and in “Vapor Trails” traces the emotional trajectory of lost love and dreams of reclaiming it.”Stars in California,” imagines a bright place where he can go, but sung with just the right amount of skepticism, and knowledge of the difference of his situation. “They’ve got stars in California/ Walking down the streets/ Dancing on the boulevard/ In their gold and satin sheets/ Buskin’ on the corner for change/ For tips/ and for me/ For old memories.”
The passage of time is sung about in “the Captain and the Highway,” and “Life and Times of a Sad Song,” looks at the perspective of a sad song on its sorry listeners. More upbeat “We’ve All Got Our Marks to Make,” talks about what weathers the test of time and what doesn’t, but how even the fleeting moments of greatness stay with us forever as part of who we become. Despite some more stormy, melancholy undercurrents, Fresh Water in the Salton Sea is a boat that goes to the island of maturity and wisdom.
“The wind blows in/ The tide rolls out/ The days fly by/ As this world spins around/ Line by line/ And age to age/ We’ve all got our marks to make.”