Liam McKahey, all round good egg and possessor of a voice that is a national treasure, makes a welcome return to music with his new album Lonely Road. For those not in the know, McKahey was the frontman for the London-based Cousteau who released three grand albums in the early ’00s but have been inactive since 2005’s superb Nova Scotia. That album also saw McKahey taking over songwriting duties from the recently departed Davey Ray Moor and he carries on the good work on this new recording with his backing band, The Bodies.
It is also notable that the Cork-born McKahey has relocated to Canberra, Australia. There is a sense of space that was sometimes missing from the claustrophobic intensity of Cousteau’s music, no more so than on the opening title track. Featuring some beautiful slide guitar from Cousteau guitarist Robin Brown, the track positively breathes of wide open spaces and roads to travel, with McKahey pleading to “Open up your eyes/It is passing you by”.
Four paragraphs into the review and I haven’t even mentioned that voice yet. Needless to say, McKahey is bang on the money right from the opening bars of Lonely Road. It’s nice to hear a greater freedom in his vocal expression here, with his trademark swoop and swoon stretching out effortlessly.
Unheeded Tidings is one of the most Cousteau-like tracks on the album, although the way the slow burn intensity of the verses dramatically jumps into a frantic chorus is more redolent of Nick Cave.
Inscription and Clyde slow the mood down, with the former featuring some beautiful guitar work from Brown and one of those effortless Scott Walker style vocals that McKahey seems to roll off in his sleep.
Lovers & Fools is the biggest curio on the album, its trumpet solos and twangy guitars indicating a close affinity with the Lee Hazlewood songbook. It’s a trick Tindersticks have been getting away with for years and McKahey sounds utterly at ease in the same territory.
The mariachi feel is maintained on Serafina, while Blackwater Pass creates an eerie atmosphere with a Spanish guitar trilling away as McKahey duets with a sultry female singer.
Fire opts out for full-on rock and is perhaps the album’s only major misstep. Kudos for McKahey for attempting to stretch his horizons but he sounds uneasy in such a format.
Listen and John Henry’s Eve play the album out in more familiar territory, all acoustic guitars and swelling dramatics. The latter is a cast-iron beauty with Brown’s keening guitar and McKahey’s impeccable vocal driving home the lyric’s note of redemption.
It’s great to have McKahey back, and Lonely Road is an interesting departure for a man who could so easily have continued trading in the same old sound. This is not Cousteau Mk II, and Lonely Road is so much better because of that fact.