Savor This Album Like a Fine Stew

Jen Kearney and the Lost Onion are playing at Toad in Cambridge on Thursday nights in September.
Jen Kearney and the Lost Onion are playing at Toad in Cambridge on Thursday nights in September.

Lowell musician Jen Kearney‘s latest work blends jazz riffs, latin rhythms, Motown grooves and a rock n’ roll sensibility into one cohesive album that should be savored like a fine meal, not scarfed down like a drive-through cheeseburger at 2 a.m. after a Saturday night out.

“The Year of the Ox” is a concept album where the songs were carefully crafted and then put together in a specific order.

Kearney’s voice has been compared to Stevie Wonder and on this album it sometimes sounds like him; sometimes like a young, screechy Michael Jackson; sometimes like a booming Joan Armatrading; and sometimes it’s uniquely her. But the music that accompanies her is truly original, blending a mixture of sounds including jazz flute with Motown saxophone, latin drums, and caressing backup vocals.

A good example is the masterpiece of the album: “Gentle and Precise.” This song is put together and built like a (pick one) masterful oil painting; a finely-tuned European sports car; or a gourmet stew; with many different things going on at once. But the arrangement by Kearney is flawless and it works.

It starts out with a riff reminiscent of Miles Davis, heads into a mariachi trumpet sound, and then Kearney’s deep strong voice belts out, “Busy fools building shrines, Got a high education, But can’t seem to lift up their minds.” Her staccato inflection is then buoyed by a crescendo of soothing backup vocals. You hear all of these rhythms and melodies at once and you can’t help but smile (and maybe even dance).

Twelve musicians play a variety of instruments which makes this a very different album. There’s a trumpet, a flugelhorn, tenor sax, flute, trombone, violin and viola to go along with the standard lead guitar, drums, bass and keyboards. There is also something called a cuica and talking drum and a theremin, which provides some of the other-worldly sounds.

Other highlights include the songs:

  • “To the Moon”: This song has a funky groove with a bopping bass line layed down by Brian Coakley, followed later by some jazz flute by Dan Abreu that sounds reminiscent of Tito Puente’s band.
  • “Succotash Blue”: Kearny sounds like a young Michael Jackson here with a nice jam session towards the end.
  • “Bossa Nova Stereo”: Opens like a song from the Buena Vista Social Club album and ends with a bossa nova beat. Nice lyrics about a wise woman giving her advice: “She said you’ll never find peace thinking the way you think,  It’s not in a man, in a pill or a drink, Keep rolling along, Keep writing your song, And you’ll learn baby.”

The main theme that runs through this album is the desire for self-improvement and the pull of nature (specifically the moon) vs our free will. Kearney uses these primitive concepts to take us on a wild musical ride into what makes us human.

(“The Year of the Ox” is available on CD at CDBaby and for download at

(Discover more roots music in the Music section.)

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