Another Side of Jeff Kelly
photo by Susanne Kelly
by Jeff Penczak (November 1999)
Poor Jeff Kelly. Rock and Roll's answer to Rodney Dangerfield - except Rodney gets more respect. For most of the last score of the 20th century, Jeff has been crafting some of the sweetest, most melodious and memorable psychedelic tinged pop music these ears have encountered, mostly arranged and interpreted by his band, The Green Pajamas. Unfortunately, outside of a few pockets of musicologists scattered across the globe, most of these confections have registered about as much impact as that proverbial tree falling in the woods with no one around. Small, independent record labels from such exotic lands as Greece (DiDi), Australia (Camera Obscura, AuGoGo), Germany (Bouncing Records), Sweden (Sound Effects) and England (UBIK, Woronzow) have released his work to the cognoscenti who devour each lyric, chord progression and subtle musical nuance like a junkie scoring his last fix. As soon as the record ends, we start it again, hunting for additional clues to hidden meanings missed the first go round, savoring each note as if it were his last, yet immediately yearning for more: another album, another song....
Here in America, Tom Dyer heard something in Jeff's songs and signed the Pajamas to his Green Monkey record label in their native Seattle, despite the fact that Jeff's fabric of choice, paisley was immediately swallowed up by a sea of flannel. Microscopic quantities of the first four GPJs releases trickled out, some in cassette only versions, giving new meaning to the term "limited edition." Along the way, Tom also released all 6 of Jeff's solo outings, the first 4 only on cassette in even smaller editions. Now, at last, Camera Obscura (Tony Dale's Australian imprint which single handedly resuscitated the Pajamas' nascent career with '97s triumphant return to glory, Strung Behind the Sun) has remastered, repackaged and reissued three of Jeff's solo releases under the umbrella of the Melancholy Sun box set: Coffee in Nepal (1987), Portugal (1990) and Private Electrical Storm (1992). Rounding out the set is the previously only released in a private "Christmas present" pressing of 50 cassetttes, The Rosary and the House of Jade (1997). [Jeff's other solo projects are his (cassette only) Baroquen Hearts debut (1985) and Ash Wednesday Rain, which was released on CD by Green Monkey in 1995. A seventh solo project, Twenty Five was a special 25th birthday present for his wife, Susanne that Jeff gave to a few friends. Although some of the tracks later appeared on Green Pajamas' releases, Jeff told me that he has no plans to release it in its entirety.]
Handsomely packaged in an "Ampex" white card tape box with a 24 page booklet and featuring Magic Eye-styled cover art (which, like the music inside, reveals more detail upon closer examination) and exclusive photos and drawings by Jeff's wife and muse, Susanne, Melancholy Sun presents Another Side of Jeff Kelly. Pajamas fans anticipating settling in for another Indian Winter, Get Hip's 1997 collection of Green Pajamas' obscurities had better check their calendars at the door. No, this is not the place to discover the seeds of musical ideas which later germanated in more comfortable surroundings on a Green Pajamas' album, although a few melodies will be familiar to the astute listener. For the most part, these songs were recorded exclusively by Jeff and Susanne in their home on a 4 track cassette deck. When I interviewed Kelly recently, I asked him if there was any difference in his approaches to a solo record and a full band recording and he said, "Actually, there is. With the Pajamas, I write more short, concise songs with choruses that are catchy and that people would like. With solo stuff, the songs are less formulaic." I would propose the following distinction as well: the Green Pajamas material is written for a mass audience. It is external and impersonal, generic if you will. As he says, something strangers, nameless, faceless "people would like."
His solo material, on the other hand, is more internal and personal, perhaps written only for his immediate family's ears. While the lyrics still relate specific incidents in his life, they are carefully selected moments which appear to be rife with in-jokes and obscure references to dates and times and places that only Susanne could truly appreciate. By mixing equal parts Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake with the erotic 19th century poetry of Elizabeth Siddal (Jeff: "Now you're talking sex crazed!") and adding a pinch of Emily Dickenson for good measure, Jeff has fashioned soundtracks to the lives of lonely, desparate coeds, hiding in their bedrooms underlining key passages in their fifth dog-eared copy of "The Bell Jar." The key revelation here, however, is that Jeff numbers himself among these women. If Holden Caulfield, that most feminine of heroes, wrote music, I can now imagine what it might sound like. This is the most feminine music any man has conjured forth. Strangely, no artist has evoked such cross-gendered emotions since Janis Ian's Verve LP's helped me survive puberty over 30 years ago. This isn't any boy-meets-girl, boy-fucks-girl, girl-dumps-guy, guy-pouts-in-the-corner-and-swears-off-women "pop" teenage psychobabble currently fashionable with the American empty-V generation. Jeff has exorcized his soul, laid bare his heart and dumped his life's accumulated baggage at our feet and there's no emotional rescue on the horizon.
Now that I've made our bed, I invite you to come lie in it and witness the melancholy sunset, Jeff Kelly style.
Coffee In Nepal (1987)
Jeff's second solo release kicks off with the pop whimsy of "In the Blue Light." With vocal assistance from Susanne, whom he had first met barely a year before if my math is correct- in a 1998 interview with Jud Cost, Jeff said "My life sort of started over when I first met Susanne, going on twelve years ago now..." This and "Sleepy People" demonstrate immediately the giddiness of young lovers discovering potential lifemates during the early stages of a relationship. This sense of wonder and excitement is illustrated perfectly in the next track, "Happy, My Sweetheart," sung in the style of one of Moondog's madrigals or "rounds." "Maria" is one of the few examples in the box set of a melody which reappeared later in a Green Pajamas' setting, reminding me of "Song for Tess" on the Strung Out EP (Camera Obscura/Endgame, 1998.) "Burn, Witch, Burn" had me preparing for an examination of one of Jeff's (and my) favorite historical figures, Joan of Arc. [During our recent conversation, Jeff said "That's pretty cool that we discovered we had that in common!"] However, we'll have to wait until Private Electrical Storm's "All the Maids in France" for that, as this song, featuring a wonderful Neil Young-ish falsetto from Susanne is actually a forlorn love song over a medieval carnival backing, expressing a recurring theme throughout the box set, that of love's labors lost.
Jeff has stated that Susanne turned him on to Leonard Cohen via a mix tape her father had made for her and once Jeff heard "Joan of Arc" (naturally!), "to use an old tired phrase, it blew me away... That mournful voice... that got me hooked. I fell in love with every one of those albums." "Oh How I Love You" illustrates that Jeff has learned much from the old codger, as Cohen's trademark lilting, singsong melody permeates this sorrowful confessional of Jeff begging forgiveness for causing another silly fight over some meaningless cigar. One of my favorite aspects of Jeff's lyrics is their ability to visually encapsulate "Kodak moments" from his and Susanne's life. I can imagine Ingmar Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE as one of their favorite movies and what a soundtrack Jeff could provide if someone ever decides to remake this landmark film. This cinematic feel, this visualization of life's everyday occurrances is another theme that is consistently explored throughout the disks in this box set. In fact, when I queried Jeff recently, he replied quite simply, "Why all the imagery? I don't know. You just sort of write about stuff that's on your mind at a particular time of day or week or year. Most of the time, for me, it's women... To tell you the truth, a great deal of it - probably most of it has been inspired by my wife."
The title of the box begins to reveal itself on the next track, "Panda." Perhaps reminiscing about a Far Eastern vacation, images of China are sprinkled throughout this harpsichord (? - one nagging complaint I have is that the instrumentation is not identified anywhere in the liner notes) based tune, whose refrain, "I'm happy...so happy, he said" disguises unspoken feelings hidden deep inside. Another lesson gleaned from Cohen: never has elation sounded so mournful and fleeting.
"Coffee" peaks with the nursery rhyme quality of "Don't Ever Go," a perfect little ditty for putting the little ones to bed for the night. It's chorus tugs at the sleeves as Daddy's little girl begs for just one more song before drifting off to sleep....
Unfortunately, most of "side two" of the original cassette loses the momentum established so far. The disjointed stutter-steps of "The Big Kick," the hesitant dirge of "A Quiet World" and the seemingly unfinished title track meander aimlessly into an awkward reading of Emily Dickenson's misplaced poem, "I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died." "Pony and Me" wears out it's welcome quickly with self-indulgent guitar noodlings (something thankfully absent from most of the box) while "Hearts and Flowers" isn't bad for "open mike" night at the local coffee bar (in Nepal.)
Overall: 9 out of 15. [NOTE: Ratings throughout are based on the number of tracks I would play again at a later date and time. However, in order to fully appreciate each release in its original context, see my CAVEAT EMPTOR at the end of this article.]
Recommendation: Return to the beginning after Track 9.
Reversing the ominous trend of Coffee in Nepal, Portugal's pleasures don't reveal themselves fully until "side two." However, the groundwork is laid out quite nicely with a few killer tracks to start off the disk. "The Gypsy Susanna" and "The Windmill Song" both apply the stereotypically fleeting gypsy lifestyle to male/female relationships. (I wonder if Susanne is Hungarian?) The former features the ghost of Cohen with one of those haunting melodies you find yourself humming a few days later, trying to recall the title (perhaps one of those "Songs" [Master, Teacher, Stranger?] from the first album.) "I've Got the Sun in My Pocket" recalls Britfolk stalwarts Fairport Convention or Incredible String Band and sounds like an update of some old traditional British folktale, but studio trickery and some annnoying backward masking towards the end seem unnecessary. "Lovers in A Row" again recalls a recent GPJs' tune, perhaps from their latest, Seven Fathoms Down and Falling (Woronzow, 1999). The highwater mark of Portugal, however, lies in the next track, "She's gone, she's gone, she's gone, oh daddy, she's gone." With banjo accompaniment, this is as soulful as I've ever heard Jeff and comes off like Dylan trafficking in some mutant strain of John Barleycorn.
"The Handmaid" introduces the spectre of Nick Drake, with its painfully sparse arrangement and dislocated vocals. "The Wishing Well," recalls Lennon alone in the Dakota, yearning to escape the outside world and disappear forever with his lover. An encapsulation of that cross gendered emotion I spoke of earlier, this time Jeff perfectly captures that elusive feminine trio: angst, guilt and regret. A quick little Irish jig, the banjo-based "Sasha ni Kelly" (Susanne's "pet" name?) would not be out of place on a Clive Palmer solo record and sounds very much like "Coventry Carol," his short contribution to the Woronzoid compilation. Another pint and pass the corned beef, please!
"Oh, My Mary" reminds me of some old Civil War ballad of lost love, with its banjo picking and longing chorus. Next we come to the "hit" single, as if something so romantic could ever apply to Jeff's tunes. "Fat Coach Merrill" is the closest to what one expects from a Green Pajamas release: great melody, toetapping back beat, curious storyline that doesn't really go anywhere and the feeling that you've just heard the best undiscovered gem that you have to turn all your friends on to. This should have been on every radio station across the country 10 years ago.
My favorite piece, the waltz that is "Laura Petry's Eyes" reminds me of my own crush on a TV character from my youth (OK, mine was "That Girl," Ann Marie.) I can readily identify with this fantasy of meeting my secret love in a local bar, sweeping her off her feet, sharing the most romantic of dances and then disappearing into the night, knowing it could never be.... Perfection!
Two new tracks, "Longing For Love" and "The Princess" wrap up the disk. Although recorded nearly a decade after the others, they fit in quite nicely with the emotions and moods expressed in the previous tracks.
Overall: 12 out of 17
Recommendation: While its charms may require several tastes to fully enjoy, this is best experienced over the bottom half of a gallon of fine Portguese port. Jeff's Pink Moon.
Priavte Electrical Storm (1992)
Expanding to 8 track recording and relocating to Tom Dyer Studios and fellow Pajama, Joe Ross' farm, the sound on PES is fuller but the songs still retain their melancholic, almost childlike quality. "Dr. Diane" may be the same co-worker that Jeff romanticized about on Strung Behind the Sun's "Dr. Dragonfly" and "The Elusive Dr. D." Joe told me recently that "Dr. Dragonfly" was "about someone Jeff works with... And if you listen to 'The Elusive Dr. D,' it's about him fantasizing about one of his co-workers." If indeed this is the same Diane, I'd say "obsessing" is a more apt description. However, Susanne is OK with this. Besides singing backup on the track (along with Pajama drummer Karl Wilhelm's daughters(?) Barbara, Lyndsey and Shannon), she has said, "Well, if he wasn't so passionate about things, he wouldn't be making music." Joe added, "But that's just Jeff. He's passionate about women."
"Find A Way" and the Pajamas-like "Lavender Field" both feature that band's rhythm section circa Book of Hours, Karl Wilhelm and Steve Lawrence. In fact, their tracks on "Find A Way" were laid down during the recording sessions for Book of Hours, so these songs lend a much different aura to Jeff's solo material than the previous disks. Rather than championing the infusion of additional outside input into the mix, I would say this results in the loss of innocence that we've grown accustomed to. Admittedly, "Book" is my least favorite Pajamas' release, but I still think some of its slick "new wave" sound has inappropriately crept into Jeff's recordings here.
But that's not to suggest PES is without merit. "Marching To the Moon" is vintage Cohen: over his trademark nursery rhyme-like swinging melody, complete with bouzouki-like backing and even namechecking one of his songtitles in the first verse, "This is for you/You know who you are," Kelly singspeaks his way through a typical tale of regret and remorse over someone that he let get away. Jeff's paean to Dante Rossetti's wife, Elizabeth Siddal, "My Elizabeth To Me" and the next track, "Queen of the Violet Room" are both beautiful, yearning love songs. In the past, Jeff has praised Siddal's "very sad, melancholy poetry." In fact, he has suggested that a future project will involve "taking her poetry and setting it to music. It's going to be very Gothic... It'll be kind of dark and pretty and melancholy." The fruits of these efforts have already revealed themselves on Ash Wednesday Rain (another solo release not included here) where Jeff wrote "A Year And A Day" based on one of her poems.
Jeff whips himself into a guitar frenzy with "My Wife and Other Strangers." His guitar attack and the manner in which he nearly spits out the lyrics suggest that Susanne's obviously unbridled trust of Jeff around the opposite sex is not unequivocally reciprocated. "Sand (In Search of Daisy Clover)" affords Jeff the opportunity to re-examine one of his favorite subjects, the innocent little girl buried "inside Daisy Clover" fighting to emerge from the protective shell she has placed between herself and the world.
Finally, we come to (one of) Jeff's Joan of Arc songs, "All The Maids in France (Vaucouleurs)." He told me that he and Susanne went to visit some of the sites from Joan's life, although they never actually made it to up to Vaucouleurs. So, armchairing the tour in his mind and applying his extensive knowledge of La Pucelle, Jeff recounts his visit, where "little boys played in the ruins there, careless of ages past." Perhaps rueing the fact that, in his mind, their trip was incomplete, he again imagines what could have been: "What if we hitched a ride there and stayed the night or stayed forever there?" Employing a clever double entendre, the chorus echoes Jeff's singleness of purpose. It doesn't matter how many beautiful women (maids) there are in France TODAY, my mind is preoccupied with THE maid and "All the maids in France couldn't convince me to leave [Voucouleurs.]"
Two bonus tracks from the same time period end PES on a pensive note. "Evermore" is yet another love song to Susanne, (actually, Jeff says in his liner notes that "all of the music found herein was inspired by her in one way or another"), while the lengthy "Since You've Been Away" takes twice as long as necessary to present its case. Romantic strings of epic proportion, grand pianos and elaborate arrangements, "la la la's" and production values push this a little too over the top for me.
Overall: 8 out of 16
Recommendation: Very spotty release suggesting Jeff's solo recordings should be made in his bedroom or home studio. Outside locations and influences, however minimal, distract from his cozy, personal communication with the listener. This sounds too much like half a solo record and half a (weak) Pajamas record and the dialectics pulling Jeff in opposite directions have derailed his focus. Perhaps the strain of 3 unsuccessful solo releases and the lukewarm public response to the 4 Green Pajamas' releases weakened his judgement and led to an attempt to rescue and combine the best of both endeavors. There is clearly a distinction between a Jeff Kelly record and a Green Pajamas record as he elaborated in an earlier quote. I think this release suffers from blurring that distinction.
The Rosary and the House of Jade (1997)
"I've got another whole record called The Rosary In (sic) The House Of Jade in the can - sort of a spy concept album, sort of tongue in cheek thing. It's generally referred to as 'The Spy Tape.' I recorded all these songs with a mystery, kind of spy theme." - Jeff Kelly (Ptolemaic Terrascope #25)
The only (for the most part) previously unreleased disk in the box, "Rosary" was recorded during the mixing of the Pajamas' Strung Behind the Sun in the Spring of 1997. Assisted on occasion by fellow Pajamas, Joe Ross and Eric Lichter, Jeff kicks off this release with something he hasn't tackled much in the past: jazz! "The Lady Is A Spy" begins during a rainstorm as the piano saunters along in 3/4 time, perhaps placing us back in the '40's in a fog-encrusted London back alley. Ending with a little segment from "On A Clear Day You Can See Forever," the spy motif is thus established. "The Rosary 1" immediately grabs us with its Bond-like brass intro and presents an interesting way to die that even James hasn't had to deal with: "Beware, beware the rosary/They wring around your neck/You only get one prayer per bead/And you don't get nothing back." "She Doesn't Know We're Watching Her," a voyeuristic, noirish tale continues the espionage theme. Jeff's symbolism and metaphors are in full flight and the synth break even recalls the famous zither-based "Third Man Theme." "My Sweet One" is an old fashioned waltz through the streets of Occupied France, an accordian leading us around blind corners and down dead ends.
Following a quick DeWolf interlude, Susanne's recitation of Li Po's 8th century poem, "Jade Stairs Resentment" unveils our mystery heroine. A leit motif borrowed from Ennio Morricone's "The Burglars" soundtrack wafts through the break as the Cohenesque lilting melody of the chorus bids us welcome to "Tokyo Town." Our quiet little local investigation has become an international affair. Jeff cleverly and brilliantly throws us offguard by switching gears from a jazz inflected mood to a more pop oriented sound with "By the River," one of the few tracks in the entire box which might actually have benefited from a full band treatment. The other, "Winter in Moscow" was actually co-written with Joe and Eric. "Rosary" ends with a reprise of the opening two tracks, and the musical equivalent of the "credits" rolls by, leaving our hero endlessly waiting, stranded alone and helpless in a foreign country. Not since Blondie's "Contact in Red Square" has there been such a satisfying mix of high stakes international intrigue carefully integrated into a pop context. I can't wait for the board game!
Overall: 12 out of 14; a few insignificant interludes aside, this is the best release in the package.
Recommendation: In general, Rosary actually benefits from the studio setting. A concept album such as this cries out for a cinematic treatment and provides Jeff with more tools to create the expansive John Barry-like arrangements. More song oriented and tighter structured than the other releases in the box, this is the closest to what the Pajamas were mixing across town at the time. Everything that went wrong with PES is put right on Rosary. The songwriting is stronger, the arrangements, tighter and the delivery is more self-assured instead of self-indulgent. The sense that Jeff is enjoying himself again is readily apparent.
It is unfair to fast forward through a decade of an artist's career in four hours. [Likewise, I hope I'll be forgiven for all the Leonard Cohen comparisons. These are strictly reference points for newcomers unfamiliar with Jeff's work. I wouldn't deign to insult either artist by proclaiming from the highest mountain that Jeff Kelly was America's answer to Leonard Cohen.] The natural tendency to immediately replace each disk with the next one is a temptation that ultimately defeats any careful analysis of an artist honored with the "box set treatment." Lost is the opportunity to replay, digest and savor each release in its original context. I suggest you attempt to isolate each disk, live with it for a few days, then go back and relisten to it before moving on to the next one. This isn't after all a 4CD set of material written over the past few years and suddenly unleashed on the public to be devoured in one sitting. Think of it, rather, as a photo album - individual snapshots of unrelated times and places, each with their own little story to tell, all conveniently held together in a handsome carrying case to be taken off the shelf now and again to experience, cherish and enjoy.
Jeff Penczak is the host of two radio shows over WNTI-FM, 91.9 in Hackettstown, NJ (www.wnti.org). On Mondays from 8-10PM, tune in for "No Soap, Radio" and on Saturday mornings from midnight - 3AM you can experience The Night Visitor's "White Noise" programme. [All times, eastern US]. He welcomes correspondence at firstname.lastname@example.org
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