Kevin Rowland has always been a wild card, to say the least. From the early days of Dexys Midnight Runners to this album, 2016's Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul, he has taken the band in whatever direction his whims and plans demand, no matter the consequences. After coming back in 2012 with a newly shortened name (Dexys), many former bandmembers on board, and an album harking back to the vintage days of the mid-'80s and stocked with songs that were quintessentially Rowland, the group slimmed down to the core of Rowland, vocalist Sean Read, and viola player Lucy Morgan and again did something unexpected. The idea of Rowland doing covers isn't so daft, considering he'd done two albums of them in the '90s -- it was more the songs they covered and the way they approached them. Half the album is a follow-up to a plan hatched in the '80s (after Too-Rye-Ay) to take traditional Irish standards and give them the full-bore Dexys treatment. That makes sense enough. The rest of the album is a wildly diverse batch of tunes, like the LeAnn Rimes ballad "How Do I Live" and Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," that one would never expect Dexys to cover. No matter the song or style, the band takes a firmly middle-of-the-road approach to all of them, ladling goopy strings and tinkling pianos on top of everything and taking everything at a very relaxed pace. It's an interesting choice, one that ironically makes Let the Record Show the most normal-sounding of all Dexys albums despite its eccentricities.
While the music is fine, rollicking in spots and suitably arranged on the ballads, the focus, as always, is on Rowland's instantly recognizable vocals and his over the top presentation. His voice may not be quite as elastic as it was in his prime, but age has brought him gravity. Read's backing vocals play the part of the younger, wilder Rowland, while the man himself stays firmly grounded. While he sounds great on the few uptempo songs, he really digs in on the ballads and imbues them with heartbreaking sincerity and finely burnished soul. It's just right for the nostalgic sadness of "The Town I Loved So Well" or "Both Sides Now," and dead-on perfect for the album's showstopper, "Carrickfergus." Taken at funereal pace, the tale of a terminally ill miner returning home was sung in one take with Rowland unable to stifle a cough halfway through. He nails the emotional core of the song and sounds like he's very close to being the kind of crooner he's long yearned to be.
Let the Record Show may not be the record Dexys fans who love Rowland's original songs may have wanted, but it's a Dexys album through and through. Unpredictable, completely dedicated, and honest to the core, it packs an emotional wallop and is yet more proof that Kevin Rowland is still standing, just as proudly as ever.