You Enormously Talented Singer, Please Make More Music!Kelly Hogan, you're an enormously talented singer.
by Kurt Wildermuth
As you know, you write or co-write many of your songs, but somehow the label singer/songwriter doesn't fit you. Your originals are as well written as your cover versions are well chosen, but you have pipes and you know how to pipe up or pipe down to suit the details of a song. You are an inhabiter of songs. You inhabit torch ballads, rockers, soulful laments, country tales, and ironic "indie" pop tunes. Your first solo recording, The Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear (Long Play, 1996), displayed a restless creativity worth watching. Beneath the Country Underdog (Bloodshot, 2000) fulfilled that promise, in part by channeling the restlessness. Because It Feel Good (Bloodshot, 2001) perfectly married your musical style and your vocal styling. How can it be that a singer and recording artist as talented as you are has not released a recording in ten years? Kelly Hogan, this open letter is designed to coax you into recording a fourth CD, or set of tracks, or whatever you want to call the product. This piece is also designed to alert the musically aware denizens of the World Wide Web--that is, Perfect Sound Forever readers--to what they're missing if they haven't heard your stuff.
Older indie rock fans or fans of older indie rock might remember you as a member of the Jody Grind, the Rock*a*Teens, or both. Fans of Neko Case or the Drive-By Truckers might have heard you singing back-up in concert or on record. Some people might also know you from the Corn Sisters, your touring collaboration with Neko Case and Carolyn Mark. Seriously though, listeners need to spend some time absorbing your recordings to appreciate your way with a song.
On Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear, Kelly, you were only beginning to find your way. It's your most "indie rock" recording, a transition from the sounds of your previous bands to the sounds bands make for you. This low-key, low-budget, somewhat higher than lo-fi affair was coproduced by you and recorded in your hometown of Atlanta, GA. While the band sometimes sounds under-rehearsed, the bare-bones musicianship lets you command the stage. The guitarist, Andy Hopkins, is the musical constant on your CD's, and he has been your songwriting partner since Beneath the Country Underdog. What's he up to these days?
At the time, the diversity and delicate beauty of this collection must have been a revelation for the Hogan fans who heard it. On "Arms," an original with a pensively shuffling rhythm and ringing guitar that fills gaps in the rhythm, you stand surefooted and deliver a lover's complaint. "I would have gladly held you down / My fingers knuckle-white," you explain to the unnamed ex-lover. "If you had only held still for a minute." Another highlight is completely different: a spirited cover of the late great singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt's "Soft Picasso" (see, there the term fits perfectly). Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, you deliver this morality tale about sexual relations between "the modern girl" and "the modern man" pretty straightforwardly, but you can't hold back a quick laugh. You sound very much like K(athy) McCarty covering Daniel Johnston, and that's a very good thing (see http://www.furious.com/perfect/kmccarty.html). Five songs later, on Toussaint McCall's slow-burning soul number "Nothing Takes the Place of You," you show off your ability to emote, playing with the melody in your best Otis-Redding-meets-Aretha-Franklin manner and drawing the listener into the drama without chewing the scenery.
At the start of Beneath the Country Underdog, thick, gritty guitar chords--bom, bom, BOM--fire off your version of Johnny Paycheck's "(It's a Mighty Thin Line) Between Love and Hate." The drums kick in with the power of '70's hard rock, and then you declare, "I love you so much / It never entered my mind / You were laughing at me not with me / And you'd leave me behind." This track could be the great hypothetical collaboration between early Cheap Trick and Tammy Wynette, and it could not be better: the crunching rhythms . . . the propulsive percussion . . . the brief hesitations here and there, which contribute to the sense that the singer is coming to terms with that mighty thin line . . . your declarative, whooping "yeah-uh-eah!" right before the guitar solo... which articulately dots and dashes its way into a sign-off note that could be a kiss-off. That's Andy Hopkins playing lead and rhythm guitars, and here he's billed as a member of the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, a Chicago-based side project of the punk, country, and punk/country band the Mekons. Together, you and the Cosmonauts blend your genres with great intelligence and deep feeling.
Enough said, Kelly? Not quite. I'm going to keep piling on the praise until you're forced to make more music. From that power-pop nugget, you move to a shimmering version of Willie Nelson's "I Still Can't Believe You're Gone." A sweet original by Mekon/Cosmonaut Jon Langford stands up alongside the Paycheck and Nelson songs. A '70's-ish original by you and Hopkins convincingly includes horns, pedal steel, and luxuriant vocal trills on the lines "Where-ere-ere-ere are you? Where-ere-ere are you tonight?" But then, in your signature style, you quickly drop from the high notes to matter-of-factly, soft-spokenly explain, "I don't believe it / I don't believe in you."
After that, Kelly, and out of left field, you pull in a faux-country ballad, a musical dramatic dialogue called "Papa Was a Rodeo," by the indie-pop/rock songwriter Stephin Merritt. Merritt's original version, recorded with his band the Magnetic Fields, is fine but clearly tongue-in-cheek and mopey in Merritt's typical way. Here, again--to repeat the comparison because it's so apt--your version does for Merritt's song what Kathy McCarty did for Daniel Johnston's songs back in 1992. You legitimize it. You wring out most of the irony, deliver the lyrics with the right amount of dramatic flair, and leave just enough of the humor to keep the oddball spirit intact. Here you're singing in the role of a lover talking to a potential lover:I like your twisted point of view, MikeAnd why? As the chorus explains:
I like your questioning eyebrows
You've made it pretty clear what you like
But it's only fair to tell you now
That I leave early in the morning
And I won't be back till next year
I see that kiss you've puckered for me
But maybe you should plug it with a beer
Papa was rodeoIn terms of attention to detail and control of rhythm, songwriting--hell, any kind of writing--doesn't get much more brilliant than that. And, Kelly, you do justice to it. Your voice is at the front of the mix, you're the character, you're tender and tough, you're excited and weary, you want that kiss but also want to warn Mike away, and meanwhile you pull off a fearless polysyllabic rendering of the word "stand" that, in its melodic rising and falling, suggests the chest fluttering in the heart, maybe the rest of the body feeling the effects of that fluttering, and maybe even the head growing momentarily dizzy. Moments later, there's something about the way you softly land on the d's in the line "What are we doing in this dive bar?" Your delivery is electrically in-the-moment. A moment later, that lingering spark lets you get away with underplaying the key line "I'll take that kiss now."
Mama was a rock and roll band
I could play guitar and rope a steer
Before I learned to stand
Home was anywhere with diesel gas
Love was a trucker's hand
I never stuck around long enough
For a one-night stand
Before you kiss me
You should know
Papa was a rodeo
While it would be hard to top the genius of that cover, Kelly, the rest of Country Underdog is no slouch. A little too much of the material sounds like country corn, but back in 2000, it was still a fruitful novelty for indie-pop-punk-rockers to venture into southern and southwestern sounds.
Which brings us to Because It Feel Good. In the twenty seconds before you start singing the opener--a cover of the Statler Brothers' "I'll Go to My Grave Loving You"--Hopkins's moodily echoing electric guitar lines define the territory you explore throughout the CD. You coproduced the recording with David Barbe, bassist for the generally ferocious alternative pop/rock band Sugar. Barbe's role here is hard to figure out, because this recording sounds nothing like Sugar. You were clearly pursuing a high lonesome sonic landscape that's straight out of a contemporary film noir. Cosmonauts Hopkins and Jon Rauhouse return on various instruments, and the Chicago singer/songwriter/violinist Andrew Bird adds very welcome atmospheric details through spare string arrangements. Your singing showed new confidence and strength on Beneath the Country Underdog, but on this one your voice soars.
All but two of the songs are covers, such as of Randy Newman's "Living Without You" and Charlie Rich's "Stay." However, the two originals, which you cowrote with Hopkins, are highlights of the collection. The first one, "No, Bobby Don't," opens with a dramatic flourish of martial drums, bass, and swirling violins that set the scene. Did you write this song with the glorious melodramas of the '60's girl groups in mind? I'd be quite surprised if you haven't spent a fair amount of time learning the lessons of the Shangri-Las' first-person classics "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)," "Leader of the Pack" and especially the devastating "I Can Never Go Home Anymore." As the title of your song indicates, the lyrics are a monologue directed to a guy named Bobby. He ain't too good, and he may be headed for trouble:No, no, Bobby don'tThrough a few verses, the singer really seems to be fed up with Bobby, telling him what to do by telling him what not to do. Suddenly, you take the word "No" and transform it, singing it ten times with increasing sharpness until it's nearly a shriek. It's not "No . . . don't." It's "NO!" And why?
Put up your fists in a roomful of strangers
Oh, I know you won't
Dig yourself into a hole
But I never can tell you anything
Always staring at the TV
Never hear a word that I say
No, Bobby don'tThe lament becomes a desperate plea for self-respect in the face of a bad relationship choice. The singer is leaving Bobby, but does everyone have to know she chose to be with a jerk? Was she really going out with him?
Show everybody what a fool I was!
Your second original here, "Sugarbowl," is another monologue. This time the tables are turned. The relationship is over, and the guy is singing to the woman he has lost: "And I know times were bad / But looking back inside my head / The mountaintops are all that I can see." The hook is the word "Sugarbowl," as in "Hey there, Sugarbowl / My little miss solid gold," which you deliver with winning sweetness. You, I, most people probably wouldn't want to spend time with a man who'd call a woman "Sugarbowl." But you don't mind being in his thoughts for these few minutes. You let us in on the guilty pleasure of singing the lines "We had some hard ones" and "We had some long ones"--ones being, of course, nights or fights or something. You nail the scenario with the detail "You were always gettin' ashes in the eggs." Kelly, maybe you're a singer/songwriter after all.
It was fun making that music, right? So come on, Ms. Hogan. I don't know you, and I have no idea what would be involved for you to give your fans--old ones like me and maybe some new ones--another set of songs to savor. But it's time.
(P.S. Kelly Hogan released her next recording, the quietly exquisite I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, on Anti Records in June 2012.)
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