Robin Kelly – Orewa Heartbeat
Dr. Robin Kelly’s fifth studio release Orewa Heartbeat is a seminal moment for this New Zealand based singer/songwriter. He’s already established an impressive reputation as one of the most complete songwriting talents working on the indie scene today and he’s successfully utilized elements of Americana to make his compositions leap into vivid life. The thirteen songs included on his latest release are often positive and embracing life’s joys, but there are moments as well where Kelly’s songwriting focus confronts less satisfactory elements with a clear-eyed recognition of life’s occasional challenges. He’s a songwriter and singer vitally engaged with each new performance and that level of engagement gives a charge to this release that his contemporaries lack. His work as a physician certainly informs much of what’s going on here, but he’s never an artist who uses his personal beliefs as a cudgel cleaving all the art away from his writing and music. Instead, it deepens his talent and makes Orewa Heartbeat one of the best releases in recent memory.
It’s an immensely friendly, inviting effort from the first. The opening cut “Waiting for Me Too” has a knowing lyrical core that Kelly’s vocal explores without any hint of cuteness; he’s affecting because he goes right past whatever your expectations for the material are and effortlessly connects with the composition’s spirit on the deepest of possible levels. His wont for bringing classical instruments into the fold enriches many songs on Orewa Heartbeat and this opener is one of the best examples of that habit in action. “I Wanna Love You” is a much straight, normal sounding tune leaning further into Kelly’s Americana influences and never strains to sound fitting following the near orchestral pop of the album’s first song. “Truthseeker (Song for Pete)” revisits some of the sound we heard with the first track, albeit not as heavily laden into the song, and the acoustic guitar work balances out with it quite nicely. Kelly, even on the softest examples, uses his singing to give much of the songwriting a surprising energy that helps liven up the already fine writing.
The light touch of “Country Mile (No One Comes Close)” might prompt some listeners to recall prime James Taylor with every bit as impressive of a vocal presentation. The instrumental sounds on the performance practically glisten and roll with relaxed amiability throughout the entirety of this highly melodic, concise tune. “So Easy Now” has a slightly rollicking feel thanks to the strong undercurrent of piano running through the arrangement and percussion that complements it quite nicely. One of the finer lyrics on the album comes with the song “The Tennessee Moon (Beams Down and Smiles)” and it certainly recalls a classic country sound verging on swing without ever coming off as tacky or overwrought. The narrative tendencies we hear in this song aren’t what we hear from many of the album’s other songs and it’s quite a successful diversion from the customary lyrical approach. The coupling of strings and piano making up the bulk of the arrangement for “A New Day Has Begun (Song for Gaza)” gives this track a contemplative edge that’s tempered just right and Kelly’s vocal strikes a fitting note in response. Robin Kelly ends Orewa Heartbeat on a surprisingly melancholy note with the track “Someone Else’s Dream” and it makes for a powerfully spartan conclusion. Kelly reflects on the emptiness so many feel experience in modern life with a pained emotive edge that will touch all but the most cynical of listeners. Orewa Heartbeat is a minor miracle of sorts, a collection that lifts listeners up without ever straining the borders of credulity.