Science has now made official what millions of us already knew—modern pop music is too loud, too bland, and it all sounds the same. And I will enhance this scientific finding by adding, based upon my own research, 97% of it sucks.
So disheartening is the state of contemporary popular music, with very few exceptions, the sensible option may be to try to avoid exposure to it, entirely. No Top Ten (formerly Top 40) radio, no American Idol/America’s Got Talent/X Factor, no synthetic cut ‘n’ paste riffs and slogans masquerading as music. Every once in a blue moon a Black Keys will crawl out of the morass to cast in sharp relief just how deplorable the rest of it is. Otherwise, it’s costly satellite radio and sources like Little Steven’s Underground Garage to hear any decent, new rock and pop.
Thing is, of course, there are plenty of albums of real music, in every genre, still being made. It’s just that the industrial-entertainment complex doesn’t make it especially easy (or inexpensive) to hear it. Getting an independent artist shelf space in one of the monolithic retail chain stores must be like trying to stock an alternative fuel in a BP station. So bless labels like Anti-Recordings for signing artists like Kelly Hogan and for releasing albums like I Like to Keep Myself in Pain.
Given the fruit fly lifespan of pop career cycles, Kelly Hogan may appear to be a new artist. She is, in fact, a well-established, highly respected singer with a devoted following both within the music community and among discerning listeners. The high esteem in which she’s held accounts for the remarkable roster of songwriters and backing musicians who contribute to I Like to Keep Myself in Pain. Touring the U.K. in the 1990s with the ill-fated Jody Grind band, for instance, led to Robyn Hitchcock offering one of his most accessible songs to this album.
Not a debut, then, I Like… is instead the first release from Hogan since 2001’s Because It Feel Good, the one that opened where her aching delivery remade The Statler Brothers’ “I’ll Go to My Grave (Loving You)” into a signature song for the vocalist. Hogan put this latest album on hold for “enough years for it to graduate high school” while she provided vocal assistance and served as an onstage foil to fellow indie music darling Neko Case, contributed to other recording projects, and sometimes toured as a solo act.
In the long interim since her previous album, she solicited compositions from her contemporaries, selected others from her archives, and penned one herself. The care that went into choosing the material and recruiting the musicians for this long-simmering project has yielded Kelly Hogan an album that will stand as a milestone in her career.
The eminently quotable singer has said that the inspiration for this album is what she calls, “The Lurch Period of Pop Music,” referring to the harpsichord-playing Addams Family butler and a time “when The Everly Brothers had ruffly shirts.” While that type of ornate chamber pop may have been the inspiration, there’s nothing frilly-shirted about I Like…. Rather, the song craft, sensibilities, and sound all evoke that golden time, from the mid-to-late ’60s, when the record industry invested in quality performers and music of substance that have stood the test of time, and saw that investment rewarded with vast success.
Recorded at Hollywood’s EastWest studios, where much of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was crafted, the album has a clean, bright, natural sound, “Lurch Period” music with all the advantages of 21st century recording technology. If there were any digital doohickeys involved, it sounds like analog arm-wrestled them to insignificance in the mix. The production, by Hogan herself, with Anti-Records’ president, Andy Kaulkin, keeps Hogan’s full-bodied vocals in front of strong, straightforward instrumental support from a four-piece band.
And what a band it is. Scott Ligon has stepped into shoes once worn by the estimable Al Anderson, and handles both guitars and extras like vibes and mellotron, here. Bassist Gabriel Roth co-founded Daptone Records, home to his regular gig, Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings. James Gadson has been called “one of the most-recorded drummers in the history of R&B” and has worked on records by everyone from Charles Wright and the 103rd Street Rhythm Band, to Bill Withers, to Paul McCartney. On organ and piano, a fellow from Memphis named Booker T. Jones. Like his work with the MGs, this band’s backing tracks would make great listening even without the vocals.
Impressive as the band’s credentials are and performance is, Hogan sounds at home leading them through these 13 tracks, recorded in an astonishing five-day span. Her confident, unhurried delivery on the opening track, “Dusty Groove” (by Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin), establishes Hogan’s total investment in the material and her ability to fully inhabit it.
“We Can’t Have Nice Things” offers a vivid catalog of grungy realities (a coffee-table-footrest bearing rings from a whiskey glass) and a failed relationship (wedding presents waiting to be returned to the store). Weird-sounding snare drum clicks metronomically conjure up the monotony of a grim existence, which Hogan expresses with a verbal shrug of resignation. A wordless vocal interlude over swirling Booker T. organ chords create a wistful, memorable hook.
The Hitchcock-written title track employs the “Oh Lonesome Me” gambit, the easy-going, loping tempo at odds with lyrics describing how the pain of being with a certain someone keeps the singer alive. “Haunted,” by former Mekon Jon Langford, finds the band rocking out for all those trapped in doomed relationships, as Hogan sings, “one for all the done-for,” the romance-damaged subjects of so many of these songs.
On Stephen Merritt’s “Plant White Roses,” desperate love is given its ultimate expression when Hogan instructs her lover to go ahead and plant the flowers, because life without him will make her want to die, a sentiment that would fit in well with Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. (Based on her performances of that album’s “Papa Was a Rodeo,” along with this one, it might be time for Merritt just to hand over all his new material directly to Kelly Hogan.)
With this album, Hogan is not so monochromatic as to restrict herself to shades of despair. Her own “Golden” is a wonderfully heartfelt wish for her friend, Neko Case, that her music will be heard and bring her the contentment she deserves. A trademark Booker T. organ solo complements the song’s rather uncharacteristically hopeful sentiment, buoying the lyric’s positive vibes. On “Ways of This World,” contributed by the late Vic Chesnutt, Hogan sings knowingly of the “ballet slippers and pierced earlobes,” and other childish and adult realities that coexist in the lives of both little girls and grown women in a cruel world that is anything but “golden.”
“Slumber’s Sympathies” evokes a gauzy, sleep-deprived wooziness, sounding something like “Sixteen Reasons” and the other off-kilter ’50s sounds of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Another sleep-centric song, “Sleeper Awake,” carries the wonderful ’60s pop feel songwriter John Wesley Harding has perfected on albums like his own Here Comes the Groom.
A twilight world at midnight, with “the sound of endless ticking,” conveys Hogan’s unwelcome solitude “when [her] world starts slipping” on “Whenever You’re Out of My Sight.” This atmospheric track, co-written by Robbie Fulks, features one of Hogan’s most moving, nuanced vocals on the album, supported by Ligon’s jazzy guitar, a gorgeous Booker T. piano-organ solo, and a girl-group vocal ensemble.
The set closes with Hogan wringing every ounce of juice out of the bluesy “Pass On By,” written by the late Margaret Ann Rich. Amid Booker T.’s torchy piano fills, Hogan soulfully declares all the worldly things she can do without, so long as she has her love. For now, at least, she may not have nice things, but neither does she need them.
The Chicago Sun-Times has called Kelly Hogan “our own Adele.” To that, like the line in “Dusty Groove” about “number one with a bullet,” I say, if only “our Adele” became as popular that the other one. With I Like to Keep Myself In Pain, Hogan not only establishes herself as a major talent, she defies the near-ubiquity of all-loud, all-the-same, all-bland modern music.
So, take that, science.