Monday, September 13, 2010

Jeff Kelly – Ash Wednesday Rain

Jeff Kelly and I are very different people.

I remember being 10 years old, just waiting for the slow days of summer to end so I could go back to school. Yes, I was one of those.  I’d spend free days in August reading encyclopedias, from page 1 on.  That’s how much I wanted to learn.  School, to me, was an opportunity, hotly anticipated.  Old friends to see, new wonders to learn, new teachers to torment, rules to break, suspensions to avoid.  I was such an odd mix of good student and authority rebel, that the Principal (who’s office I’d spent many hours in, explaining myself) audibly grunted his displeasure when I won the “Best All Around Student” Award in 6th grade.   Damn, that made my day.

Jeff’s experience was totally different, as he makes so painfully clear in his remarkable, mournful song “Shadow Classrooms.”  Against the refined strains of a strummed guitar and Hammond organ, Jeff reveals the ancient pain locked inside him all these years.  The dread of that first school day approaching, the laughing schoolgirls, the undying wish to disappear.  His yearning, strained voice expels his fears as he sings, “Summer’s gone/Winter’s waiting/Icy school rooms fill my brain/they lie in wait/there’s no escaping/please forget me/please forget me and my name.”   The song is so drenched in honest neurosis that it’s impossible not to get completely wrapped up in this young kid's drama, driving off to school, “I don’t wanna/I don’t wanna/I don’t ever wanna be young again.”  Hammond organ flourishes bring on massive waves of shyness and anxiety.  Truly remarkable.

But that’s not the only difference between me and Jeff.  Jeff has talent.  Amazing talent.  The ability to create a seemingly endless stream of somber melodies, wrapped in sorrow, stripped bare to the chilliest bone of exposure.  Every nerve is laid bare, every pain left open.

As songwriter/singer with the Green Pajamas, Jeff's storytelling is more in the tradition of remarkable British songwriters like Ray Davies than most American writers.  He comes across as a mix of Robin Hitchock and John Lennon.  He carries Hitchcock’s sense for the off-beat bizarre in his topics and frequent whimsy, but always keeps it contained in songs that are infinitely catchy, with more than a hint of Beatles-esque craft.  The Lennon also appears in his voice which yearns in the truest sense of the word, straining through those impeccable melodies to speak its story.  

Just listen to “The Greatest Sin.”  My God!  That song simply bleeds.  Pain, regret and self-loathing simply seep from the song’s pores.  (If a song had pores, that is.) But it’s not overdone, it’s not a “woe is me, shut up and get on with your life,”-type of somber.  The emotion is so real, the melody so stunningly beautiful that I can’t help but wonder what that “sin” was that he committed.  I’m thinking adultery, but with Jeff’s slightly obscure lyrics it could be any one of the Big Ten from the Commandments. 

Other songs, like “A Year and a Day,” and “Seven Years,” are almost too beautiful to put into words. 

But before you go thinking that the album is a downer, let’s don’t forget that Robin Hitchcock factor.  Album opener “Living the Good Life in a World of Disease,” is a nearly whimsical piano-led tale that just may be one of the best songs I’d never heard before.  “What Became of Betty Page,” is like a tour-de-force of garage anthemic organs and swirling melodies.  “The Singer of Another Song,” is a crafty, spunky, downright fun, minimalist off-kilter love song, that basks in its own coolness.  Spikes of piano pop in like from the best underground jazz clubs while the song swings along on its cool, beat-poetry club vibe.  Organ twirls, punchy percussion.  “What Now My Love,” brings on that Hitchockian whimsy with its churning, near-carnivalesque organ.

A treasure of neo-psychedelic, singer/songwriter powerpop.  Even more remarkable is the fact that the entire album was recorded by Jeff, at home on an 8-track cassette deck.  Guitar, organ, voice, saxophone, whatever.  I mean, this cat does it all.   When asked to describe the album in one sentence, Jeff said “some good songs and a lot of tape hiss.”  But really, it’s so much more. 

Originally released by Green Monkey Records in 1995, Ash Wednesday Rain is a long-overlooked classic that fortunately is being given another chance to shine.   Green Monkey Records has made Ash Wednesday Rain the album of the month, so you can pop over there and pick it up for a mere 8 bucks.  Too good to pass up.

Just don't ask Jeff to go back to school.


Read an interview with Jeff and buy the album here:  Green Monkey Records

No Jeff Kelly videos to share, so here's a Green Pajamas classic to give you a taste of Jeff's music

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