Keller & The Keels: Thief

Review By Rex Thomson

Keller Williams releases his new album of cover songs on the 25th of May, and joined in the venture at hand to have point of reference to work from. There were a few I did by the Keel Family duo of Larry and Jenny on Guitar and Bass respectively. The art of the cover song is a tricky thing. Properly utilized, it can help an act connect with an audience quickly, using a familiar piece of music, but in a way that shows the dynamics of the differences between the originals and the voice of the band covering it. Sparsely used, it can bring a welcome change of song structure to a bands catalog, and afford the covering artist a chance to express themselves by contrast. Overusing the cover, however, can lead one to think of the old adage “The quotaitional mentality is the sign of a juvenile intellect.” To my mind, it shows a lack of faith in their songwriting abilities. But, when the artists are anywhere near as prolific as Keller Williams and the Keels, these cover album projects become pure fun, a ripping good time for all involved, having a go at some of the material that inspires them from the pens of others. Fearless, Keller has taken the stage as part of dozens of different configurations of bands, and brought to all of them his trademark wit and whimsical playing style. Add to that Larry Keel and Jenny Keel‘s mountaintop brand of picking and plucking, and you’re bound to have a good time!

The disc opener, “Don’t cuss that fiddle” is by artist Kris Kristoferson, whose catalog gets a second visit before this set of songs is concluded. The counter play between the two guitarists style is the first thing that hits you upon hitting play. Keller’s expressive style of play a fine counter point to Larry Keel’s forceful strum, and hard pluck. The voices reflect the differences, as they trade the lyrics between them, Keel’s throaty growl a counterpoint to Keller’s sing song light hearted manner. When the chorus comes round, Jenny joins the fray, adding a sweetness that only a woman’s voice can. The blend of voices brings a welcome depth to the goings on, and makes a truly pleasing blend. The songs themes of regret and envy are countered the wry wink towards thievery, for which the album is itself titled.

The Drive By Truckers tune “Uncle Disney” A light hearted romp, poking metaphorical fun at the Disney legend, and the mass marketing and homogenization of society is paralleled in the harmony vocals of all three players. Featuring some of Larry Keel’s finest picking, and a thumping bass, holding down the rhythm fine and dandy! The spread of the sound was what caught me most, as the playing seemed to roll out away from the center of the speakers, given weight by the resonate voices. A melancholy look at seeing things with old eyes, viewing the future.

Seriously, after the bleakness of the previous subject matter, it’s time for Keller to do what he does best, make you dance and grin. Amy Winehouse seems to be a bit of a train wreck, and the fact that so many people were urging her to get help that she wrote a song about it gives William’s mischievous streak all the push it needs to take Winehouse’s overblown self involvement, and turn it into a foot stomping good time for the whole family. The tune turns into a boot scootin’ number, and features a good old fashioned old timey feel to the piece. The tempo stays an unrelentingly cheerful speed, and Keller let’s his voice do his best mountain man impression. A annoying song, given punchy new life by those involved!

A dark intro to the Danny Barnes tune “Get it while you can” follows on the heels of the grin, taking the proceedings straight back into serious territory, as again, the two guitarists show what happens when styles don’t compete, but compliment. A long intro finally settles down to a bouncing piece, with a counterpoint percussive slap of the bass by Jenny for depth. A tale of hunger and lust, and the urgency of life, the reworking brings the same sense of urgency of the first, and succeeds in capturing the spirit intended.

Seriously, I hand it to Keller for making The Ryan Adams tune palatable to me. A rare instance of the artist’s non musical activities coloring his actions musically causes me to be leery of Adams. I have had friends who have seen him report terrible shenanigans personality and behaviorally. Seriously if you can’t take people making fun of your name, you don’t belong on a stage. The sad point of the tale of abuse and regret is lifted by Keller and Larry’s smoothness together, as if to illustrate to the heroine of the song that there was a way for people to work in harmony. Stirring.

Trying to be a responsible reviewer, I went and listened to the original versions of the songs I did not recognize, to give myself a point of reference to go from in analyzing these songs. Not so much an issue here, in the case of the Grateful Dead tune “Mountains of the Moon”. There is even a friend of mine who loves this song beyond all others. Kinda looking forward to hearing his reaction to hearing this song! Keller is known to be fond of his covers live, and for taking the silliest of songs and bring his vision to them. Here, using some of the finest materials ever made, the fertile minds of Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, Phil is replaced with the deep true sound of the stand up, while Keller and Larry trade vocals and lead lines, again using the dichotomy of their voices and styles to great effect. In fact, it seems an either accidental or tres’ cunning homage to the different voices within the Dead, as all three players had an equal responsibility. As the seasons pass the songs of the Dead grow their roots deep, and from those original seeds so many blossoms of a wide variety of concepts and sounds. In fact, they trio even exits the tune thru the door marked ~SPACE~ with a wink and a smile.

The most clearly, joyously Keller tune of the album, the track Teen Angst (What the world needs now) by Cracker is his trademark! A sing song vocal, a bouncy guitar line deftly picked by Mr. Keel, push the piece forward with a breakneck pace. As if to make up for the musically lightness of the original, a wonderful duet sits squarely in the center of the piece. Add to that a chance for Keller to break out his “Sexy Bitch” lothario voice, for even just a minute makes me grin!

Contemporaries the Yonder Mountain String Band write songs in the traditional bluegrass form, but through a prism of passion and energy, a mad abandon and honesty that stir the spirit. A meditation on hope, and trying on in bad times, “The Winds on Fire” gives Us a chance to enjoy the warmth that the comedian Keller can surprise you with. A sign of his range, though he does tend to stay towards the happy end of the scale, he occasionally drops down to the somber, or even soulful range of singing, and surprises you with what he can do!

How can you not love a full acoustic Tex-Mex out of a Racontuers burst of rock, the song “Switch and Spur” Accompanied by a little of the classic ”Keller mouthing a trumpet” bidness? The south-western flair of the original is toned down and embraced as a near bandelero strum fest, and the tones of Keel’s guitar serve especially well here, giving it an almost cowboy camp out flavor. The tale itself of a no man’s land, deadly to all who visit, and the drive to cross it failing it, is a doomed one as we root for a dying mine to make it through his ordeal, know he will not. Visit a dark unknown land unprepared and be ready to pay the price. A powerful message, and one retold here with a personality well defined.

Another 90’s romp “Sex and Candy” from the where are they now Marcy’s Playground takes the song that seemed to haunt it’s place and time, and adds to Kellers track list of taking songs that once annoyed, and turning them into crowd pleasers! Short and sweet, a good cleanser from the last tracks heavy themes of death and isolation.

The much beloved Butthole Surfer’s closest thing to a radio hit “Pepper” was a welcome return to what is obviously an important period in Keller’s personal music formation. Having heard him perform this solo before, I was pleased to hear him do this with Jenny’s lilting voice backing his on the chorus. A near straight one-two, and Keller’s obvious enjoyment at doing the piece made this an instant win for me!

A final nod to the songs of the nineties, the Presidents of the United States ditty “Bath of fire” gives Larry Keel a chance to have the songs strongest lines and the Bottom of a pit vocals that seem to have the weight if the world with them. Throughout this set, you are reminded of the real dealishness of all three players, as Jenny Keel’s playing strong and timely. The best word I can use to describe Mr.Keel’s playing is simply Strong. His picking, strumming and voice all seem to come from a center that is overflowing with inner strength. And our host for these proceeding, Mr. Keller Williams himself has earned ever accolade given him, and since my first encounter more than a decade ago, I have been a devoted follower. Sadly, at the end of this tune, I realized we were nearly at the end of the whole shebang.

The last track featured the same originator as the first, Kris Krisofferson. “The Year 2003 Minus 25” opens with a strong, but brief moment of the duality of styles for one last time. All three voices give rise to imaging’s of them gathered around a single microphone, all playing as a unit, forged by love and focus. A lamentation of war and the carelessness of life, the hope is implied by the lifting of the vocals and ascendancy of the playing. In the end, Keller and the Keels exhort us all to keep our spirits high, through words and melody. To their credit, they don’t just sing of it, their passion infects you as it does this body of music, and does not let up!

A truly pleasing slice of musicosity, and one that has earned a solid place in my summer playlist, for those moments when I need to know the music will make me smile.

Pre-order the New Album "Thief" Here.


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