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Songs sung blue
New solo CDs from Paula Kelley and Leah Callahan
BY BRETT MILANO

During the ’60s, it was practically a given that any artist who was serious about writing pop songs had to try his or her hand at an orchestrated concept album. The best of those albums — the Zombies’ Odyssey & Oracle, Love’s Forever Changes, XTC’s latter-day homage Skylarking, and the king of them all, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds — stand as proof that the essence of a three-minute pop song could be stretched into something more beautiful and meaningful.

Anyone who knows Paula Kelley’s music shouldn’t be surprised that she’s finally gone down that road. Although she was born too late to live in the ’60s, it’s no secret that her heart’s in that decade — she lives for pop, loves Bacharach and the Bee Gees, and often looks as if she’d stepped out of a fashion mag from that era. Since her debut 10 years ago, as a member of the ill-fated major-label band Drop Nineteens, she’s moved steadily away from loud guitars and toward more elegant sounds. Last year on her solo debut, Nothing/Everything, the guitars came down a notch and her gifts for melody and melancholy rose to the surface.

So Kelley is right on schedule with The Trouble with Success, or How You Fit into the World (Kimchee). Like the above-named role models, it’s a beautiful and complex album that draws you in with its subtleties rather than trying to overpower you. Themes are revisited in different songs, and the 22 orchestral players are on equal footing with the band. Kelley’s melancholy side is responsible for the more striking moments; it’s in evidence here as never before, and her voice’s girlishly innocent quality is used to maximum emotional effect. The opening "A New Time" recalls the breezy Bacharach sound of her solo debut. But by the second number, "Could There Be Another World," her voice is soaring over a full string section.

"There’s a harp on that song," Kelley notes over drinks at the Abbey Lounge. "I mean, a harp — how cheesy is that? Then on ‘The Girlfriend,’ there’s a call-and-response thing; the background singers ask me questions and I answer. Even I couldn’t believe I wanted to do something that corny. But that’s the point of not being in a band anymore — I’m free from wondering whether such-and-such is a stupid idea, and I can go with my little quirks and not question them. I don’t even think this is a pop record — pop implies some kind of intent, and this is more like something that came out of my guts. If you like this album, you’d probably like my guts."

Kelley’s always had a likable, self-depreciating streak, and it comes out in the title that she nearly hung on the album: "Some Sucker’s Life." Dropping that title was one way of admitting to herself that she was ready to produce something more serious. "A lot of the songs turned out to be pretty dark," she points out. "The whole album chronicles somebody’s life, somebody who might be me — somebody who gets to notice the grandeur of life before the frustration starts to set in. There’s some religious stuff in there because I was raised with the whole Jesus story — they really know how to get you, those Catholics. In the last song, there’s somebody summarizing their own life and realizing it was a meaningless existence. But then there’s a choir that joins in, lamenting the fact that life is so meaningless, so that could give it the meaning it lacks."

Kelley was processing some shake-ups in her own life while the album was being written. She’d recently gotten married (to her guitarist and musical partner, Aaron Tap), and she was starting to work through some longstanding depression and anxiety — not to mention a history of insomnia (subject of the album’s "Night Racer") and migraines. And though pain never hurt a songwriter, she figured that enough was enough. "I was worried that I’d lose my inspiration if I started to get the depression under control, but as it turned out, things opened right up. A lot of relationships in my life have changed, and I’m learning what’s important and what’s not. So when somebody dies at the end of the album, maybe the old me is dead. I never liked her much anyway."

Writing an album’s worth of orchestrated pop songs is one thing; recording them on an indie-rock budget is quite another. Most of the heavy work was done in a few weekends earlier this year, with Kelley playing a number of keyboards, a bunch of friends pitching in (including former Sub Pop artist Eric Matthews, who played trumpet), and Aaron’s brother Matthew Tap scoring the strings and horns. "I’ve never worked so hard at anything in my life," Kelley admits. "Except when I shoveled shit at a stable in my youth, but I didn’t know what I was doing then."

Kelley will be playing through the fall with a newly expanded version of her band. Meanwhile, a listening party for the new disc, with live string quartet, is set for T.T. the Bear’s Place on Monday September 15.

AS A MEMBER OF TURKISH DELIGHT AND BETWIXT, singer Leah Callahan heard the word "chanteuse" so often that she finally decided to live up to it. "I was more into the avant-garde than being a singer-songwriter," she notes during a lunch break from her Theater District day job. "So it was strange to hear that word, because here I was fronting this dissonant, frenetic band."

Callahan’s softer side comes to the fore on her solo debut, Even Sleepers, which reveals the romantic nature that had been obscured in Turkish Delight and Betwixt. Mixing German and Brazilian influences with a bit of Nico-era Velvet Underground, it offers an individual take on cabaret music. On stage, she’s covered both the Liza Minnelli number "Mein Herr" (from the musical Cabaret) and the Velvets’ "I’ll Be Your Mirror," and the nine originals on her disc come from a similar place, elegant on the surface, a little dangerous underneath.

But the solo album wasn’t planned as any kind of deliberate career move — rather, it was the result of a chance meeting with musician-about-town Shaun Wolf Wortis. "I didn’t really know him until we started talking one night after a show. I sang him a couple of songs a cappella, and he said he heard influences like tango and klezmer — for me it was exciting to finally be validated as a songwriter rather than just for stage presence. And he said, ‘If you can write seven more songs, I’d really like to produce an album of this.’ So I went right to work to see if I could come up with some cool songs to impress him with."

Given eight days to do the writing, Callahan barely left the house. "It was extremely intense. I got some coffee and some red wine, and some records — Cat Power, Magnetic Fields, PJ Harvey. Not necessarily as inspiration, but I used them as someone might use hallucinogenics, just to get into a meditative state." More-abstract influences came into play as well. "I remember reading a neat review of the Beatles — someone saying he heard 18th-century British music in their influences. So who’s to say that I’m not influenced by previous generations of my family, people like my grandmother, who I would’ve loved to talk about music with? Hope I’m not sounding too Shirley MacLaine here."

Wortis was sufficiently impressed that he left the songs virtually untouched, backing her only with a single guitar, bass, or keyboard (engineer Joel Simches plays some Beatle-esque mellotron on one track). And Callahan’s lyrics are more direct than they’ve been in the past, whether they’re about love or other diversions ("I wish I could be drunk all the time," she sings on "Shocking Pink," which recalls the Velvets’ "Afterhours"). "I wouldn’t disown anything I’ve done, but I probably am improving as a songwriter," she admits. "Maybe it’s because we let the melodies stand instead of throwing dissonance on them."

Instead of having a conventional release party, Callahan and some friends — including burlesque artist Mary Mac and cabaret singer Brian King — will be hosting variety shows at Jacque’s on the second Friday of every month, beginning this Friday, September 12. "We realized we were a fan of the same things, like Bette Midler in her bathhouse days." More proof that it’s still possible to find a reference point that’s never been cited before.

ANYONE WITH A LOVE OF ALL that’s haunting and ethereal should by now have caught the collaboration between local avant-folk duo Damon & Naomi and guitarist Michio Kurihara, of the Japanese band Ghost. His playing has proved the perfect complement to the duo’s delicate psychedelia, and they’ve done two albums (including last year’s live set, Song to the Siren). But visa problems have made their live dates few and far between. Kurihara will be in town next week to work on their next album, and they’re using the opportunity to sneak in a live show at T.T. the Bear’s Place this Wednesday, September 10. Expect to hear material from the album in progress, and maybe the lovely Tim Buckley title track from Song to the Siren.


Issue Date: September 5 - 11, 2003
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