Imagine grandiose, baroque pop, fully orchestrated with strings, horns, and a choir fronted by what sounds like a little girl’s voice. It’s actually the whisper-pop voice of Boston’s own Paula Kelley, and strange as that musical combination might sound, it works surprisingly well. The Trouble with Success is aural proof of that fact.
Previously a pleasant wee voice with early ‘90s domestic shoegazers the Drop Nineteens, guitarist/singer Kelley went on to create a nice album with Hot Rod, and later fronted Boy Wonder for six years before officially going solo. Her 2001 first solo CD, Nothing/Everything, was her most ambitious to date, featuring some string arrangements in what was a precursor of her most recent effort.
While all those past albums have a certain charm, this current release is a quantum leap forward. Having grown as a musician, Kelley finds herself at a point in time where her songs more than deserve this grand treatment. She creates songs that open up emotionally and dramatically tell the story of someone’s life (maybe even hers). All told, it’s the strength of the compositions, along with the production and arrangements, which make this CD stand head and shoulders above any prior Kelley release.
It’s not such a stretch to view this as an updated version of popular music from the early 1960s, when artists like Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark fronted full orchestral pop treatments and ruled the day. While none of the songs from The Trouble with Success are likely to invite commercial radio play in today’s market, they certainly are good enough to merit that kind of attention. What some of the songs reflect is a Burt Bacharach-mentality as filtered through the arranging talents of Kelley, Matthew Tap, and Eric Matthews.
These 11 pop tunes are elegant, and a bit of a downer, topic-wise. Melody triumphs over melancholy, though, and only those paying very close attention realize the sadness behind the glossy arrangements. This is a complex collection that begs for long listens in order to get the full force of the intricate arrangements and subtle musical nuances.
The album features a harpsichord intro (courtesy of Kelley), followed by a truly fun spectacle of a song, “A New Time”—a wordy celebration of a recently discovered good and new kind of love. New husband and long-time musical partner Aaron Tap is there on guitars, Jim Collins is on bass, and Jeff Norcross is on drums, but the shining star behind Kelley here is the PK Orchestra, a 20-person orchestral assemblage conducted by Aaron’s brother Matthew. This is baroque pop at its finest, lush in instruments and harmonies.
In “Could There Be Another World”, things turn a bit darker and ponderous, with a slower tempo, yet there’s still elegance and beauty. This is personal therapy set to music: “Every day’s a deeper climb / Just to find some new way out of your fatal mind / But it’s the same one every time”.
We venture into Bee Gees meet Bacharach musical territory in “The Girlfriend”, a romp about an ego-driven woman messing around with someone’s mind. The 10-person PK Choir asks questions and Kelley answers. There’s some fine horn work here by the incomparable Eric Matthews, along with more great strings. By the time we reach “How Many Times”, this someone no longer believes in love’s great rewards. There’s “murmuring decay” and things misconstrued, yet it all sounds so pretty backed by lush strings.
Another potential radio single would be the seemingly upbeat “My Finest Hour”. This is as good a story as any Jill Sobule song, a woman happy and yet unhappy, an honest celebration and confusion mixed together into one lovely tune, loving life and then hating the struggle of carrying on, then just noting the puzzling aspect of it all. “The Rest of You” follows, another self-confession song about never getting things right, of “something always getting in the way” or “something’s always missing from my life.” This one is piano-based and most infectious. If you love Eric Matthews’s songs, you’ll love this one. Even though it’s Kelley’s song, his trumpet contributions here are very identifiable as his work, marvelous and harmonic and expressive.
“I’d Fall in Love with Anyone” is charming and retro, another variation on contemplating life’s disappointments and yet having hope, willing to be told what needs to be done in order to fall in love with someone new (though perhaps a bit numbed from past experience). Paula Kelley’s bouts with insomnia may have inspired “Night Racer”, the musical thoughts of one lying awake with a “tired mind”. “September Eyes” turns from an ended relationship to a plea for a new one. “Friday Came” contains religious and spiritual elements that hint at death and rebirth, as Kelley synthesizes her Catholic school upbringing into her art (along with some nice guitar).
The closing track, “Where Do You Go”, is an examination of growing, changing, and looking for a new place to go to escape the past that was, complete with harpsichord and choral accompaniment. This is another impressive song, made even more so by the arrangements (check out the fine trumpet work from Don Anderson and Chris Barrett).
Paula Kelley and her cohorts have elevated her music in a big way, taking her tuneful thoughts and confessions and arranging them in ways that make them something truly special. This is baroque pop that is affable and sweet, serious but not overdone, a celebration of the grandeur of life through music as well as life’s frustrations and seeming meaninglessness at times. Kelley, a longtime sufferer from migraines, insomnia, depression, and anxiety has recently gotten things under better control. She’s been making progress in her life, and it’s reflected in her music. The Trouble with Success or How You Fit into the World is the happy result of long, hard work and an amazing feat musically—especially considering it was done on an indie budget.
The multi-talented Paula Kelley has created her best and most versatile collection yet, a treasure of integrated orchestral and choral instrumentation in the service of emotional honesty. But don’t be fooled—the charmingly innocent, girlish voice reminds you that, in the end, it’s still very much pop.