Music

The Album: Kevin Kern's More Than Words

After a long absence, I’m back here to bore you all with my second entry for the Retro Album Review. Today I’m going to talk about a non-mainstream artist who has managed nonetheless to capture the hearts of many, particularly in East Asia (do I hear “anyeong haseyo”?). I’ve already written about him once, and now we’re going to take a trip down memory lane. That’s right, it’s Kevin Kern.

When Kevin released his 1996 debut In the Enchanted Garden (don’t worry, I’m going to write about it too), it was to great acclaim; the album itself charted on Billboard New Age. Six years onward, he had released another solo effort every year (except for 2000), none of which, it may seem, captured the same amount of attention as Garden had, but captured attention nonetheless. (Trivia: All of those subsequent albums run for a longer time than Garden) And so, after five albums, Real Music decided it was time to release a thank-you package to his fans for supporting him along the way, containing what is perceived to be their best memories associated with Kevin – otherwise known as a best-of album.

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A musical score tumbling down a waterfall and aligning itself properly on the river below? Hmmm…

The first thing that will strike you about this album is its cover artwork. Kevin’s albums are usually very beautiful in terms of album design – my favorite is 2003’s The Winding Path – and this is no exception. There seems to be some sort of symbolism here; with the release of a greatest hits, Kevin returns back to his roots (hence the notes cascading down), to the instrument that he loves the most and has mastered (hence the piano in the middle of the river, where the notes have properly aligned). But I digress.

This album is made up of 14 serene compositions, which already clock up to sixty-four minutes. His album tracks are generally very long in duration, usually exceeding four minutes (the longest is the seven-minute-long “Twilight’s Embrace” from 1998’s Summer Daydreams, which is also on this album), and when it comes to cramming favorites onto one eighty-minute CD this becomes a problem. And this is where my issues with this album are rooted in.

Twelve of those fourteen tracks come from his past albums, while two are new songs. The album opens with the dreamlike, aptly-named “Above the Clouds” from his (then) most recent effort, 2001’s Embracing the Wind, then quickly descends back to the Garden for “Sundial Dreams”. From there, the album takes on a meandering path through nature, never fully satisfied with one spot, but returning and returning. It closes with yet another Wind track, the equally heavenly “A Gentle Whisper”, although the liner notes and every website out there will still mislabel it as the ethereal “Blossom on the Wind” (also from Wind), which is pretty bitter because I like it more than “A Gentle Whisper”. That’s why my iTunes playlist version of this album places “Blossom” instead.

Now, Kevin Kern is not a singles artist, and none of his songs have been commercially released on their own to promote his albums. That’s why “greatest hits” or “best of”, in this case, is very subjective (although for the latter, there are some tracks almost universally agreed upon to, indeed, stand out among all others. Go “Through the Arbor” and you shall see). And that’s why I view this album with a mixture of love and hate unprecedented (unlike how I view, for example, Jennifer Lopez’s Dance Again… the Hits, released recently – there ARE hits excluded from it!) – I mean, it’s 50% love and 50% hate, no more, no less.

While I love every single song on this album and indeed find it an addicting listening experience (a review quote in the liner notes states that “You do not want this album to end” and I agree), I also have my personal preferences on go-to Kevin Kern tracks, only very few of which have made it here. And sometimes, I want to criticize the compilers of this album for what I feel to be injustice due to the exclusion of said tracks (the “How could you not place it there? Don’t you SEE [I mean, hear] how BEAUTIFUL this track is??” feeling). For example, “The Enchanted Garden” (obviously from In the Enchanted Garden). Or “Le Jardin” from Summer Daydreams. And as for 1999’s In My Life, the two tracks included here had to be the ones Kevin did not compose, but covered – I’m talking about the Lennon-McCartney-written title track, as well as Elton John’s “We All Fall in Love Sometimes”. They do justice to the originals, but if none of the songs are singles (which makes them “on equal footing”, so to speak), it might have been better to showcase more Kevin’s composing powers. Yes, it’s my excuse of wondering where “Touch the Sky” and “Love’s First Smile” had gone to.

But I have nothing but pure praise for the new tracks: “Out of the Darkness into the Light” was composed first for Freedom to Love, a Real Music compilation in memory of the 9/11 attacks, and it does sound… enlightening. It’s among my personal favorites, and it sounds like it could’ve come out of In the Enchanted Garden. “Children at Play”, on the other hand, is meant to be simpler, to recall brighter days gone by. IMO, it echoes In My Life, and I love how Kevin closes this track by performing a tribute to the “Children”, a brief “London Bridge” before the elegant “Twilight’s Embrace”. Sadly, both tracks are mislabeled in terms of their running times; the former is overtimed by twenty seconds, the latter by thirty. But these are aesthetic errors that have no impact on the experience.

So in effect, this album, like so many greatest hits out there, serves a dual purpose. The first is to introduce new Kevin fans to his music, because by no means does it fully capture the Kevin Kern experience. The second is to captivate any fan as a standalone album, because you still cannot deny the exquisiteness of the tracks presented here. The piano-led journey through the finer things on Earth, assisted by various other instruments, all culminates in, forgive me for the term, masturbation for the ears. And it is something I’ll go back to again and again. Indeed, the listening experience needs more than words for describing.

~~

This album was released in mid-2002. Shortly afterwards, Yamaha in Japan released another Kevin Kern best-of that featured the same formula (three tracks from Garden and Wind each; two from 1997’s Beyond the Sundial, Summer Daydreams and In My Life each; and the two new tracks). The track listing there, IMO, is much better than the one here (simply because more of my favorites are there). It’s called Through Your Eyes: Kevin Kern Collection (the title is worse, though), and that’s the next album I’m going to review, relative to this one.

Track Listing:

  1. Above the Clouds
  2. Sundial Dreams
  3. Out of the Darkness into the Light
  4. In My Life
  5. Through the Arbor
  6. From This Day Forward
  7. Threads of Light
  8. Pastel Reflections
  9. We All Fall in Love Sometimes
  10. Where Paths Meet
  11. After the Rain
  12. Children at Play
  13. Twilight’s Embrace
  14. A Gentle Whisper [incorrectly labeled as “Blossom on the Wind”]

Just for you to know my personal Kevin Kern favorites – and you may feel the same way, too! – I’m going to post here what I would’ve wanted on the album. It has 15 tracks, and reaches 77 minutes.

  1. Through the Arbor
  2. Love’s First Smile
  3. Le Jardin
  4. Where Paths Meet
  5. Above the Clouds
  6. Sundial Dreams
  7. The Enchanted Garden
  8. Out of the Darkness into the Light
  9. Pastel Reflections
  10. Another Realm
  11. Bittersweet
  12. Children at Play
  13. Touch the Sky
  14. Twilight’s Embrace
  15. Childhood Remembered

Overall Album Grade: B+

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