One has to wonder what it will take, if anything, for Scottish singer/songwriter Jackie Leven to make a name for himself stateside. His unflinching yet redemptive songs of the dark sides of archetypical manhood, and his unwavering gaze into the abyss to discover meaning and truth in modern life are lushly orchestrated, gorgeously sung, and beautifully rendered, almost unbearably so. On his latest studio effort, Shining Brother, Shining Sister, Leven goes once more into the heart of the matters of the heart with a team that includes David Thomas, Robert Bly, Deborah Greenwood, Ron Sexsmith, Michael Cosgrove, Joe Shaw, and the help of poets such as Edith Sitwell, Rainer Maria Rilke, Osip Mandelstam, and Pablo Neruda. The set opens with "Classic Northern Diversions," a tough, sound effect- laden journey into the darkness of anger and regret. Sirens, drum machines, synths, and the pulse of Leven's guitar push his voice forward into the depths: "It took me fifty long years to work out/that because I was angry didn't mean I was right/Now I'm sitting in a bar alone/with the jukebox playing a terrible song/The bartender says I see it's you again/I've been drinking deep from a jar of pain/Oh I remember once I went home like this/I had mother in tears as I felt her kiss/Now my mother is heaven bound/And her body lies in unmarked ground/In every heart in every home/there's a dying man who lives alone/He close the door and he turns away/And the tide rushes in on a fatal shore..." The guitars wrangle and roil, the synths pulse, and the skitter of the snare careens across the mix. There is no mope, no wistful longing in Leven's delivery, it's pure, feral self-assessment, without irony or pity. The fact that his mellifluous tenor flows like water only drives the stake deeper. Leven walks a line between rock and roll, blues, classic 1960s pop, and Celtic folk music with a seamless aplomb. Using poetry and the disembodied voices of ghosts, Leven writes searingly of the human condition, particularly the male one, in a manner that is appealing to both sexes. His gorgeous production standards make his music romantic and graceful, without the loss of pointed toughness and recklessness. His sensitivity is devoid of hollow New Age crap, and follows instead the jagged line of rock classicism in songs such as "Savannah Waltz," "Heroin Dealer Blues," with its barroom laughter, gospel horn lines, and countrified acoustic guitars shimmering in the foreground. The entire experience of living is in these 11 songs, full of fragments and shards of lives birthed, wasted, lost, redeemed, and resurrected to a rock and roll soundtrack narrated by voices out of time and space. Once more, Leven proves that he is a singular talent, a songsmith poet among singers, and a singer among poets. He is an original who casts a shadow long and rare.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek