As the chief member of the neo-psych Green Pajamas and as a solo artist, Jeff Kelly has released dozens of albums over the last 20 years, a feat that seems even more remarkable when you consider that virtually no one’s ever heard of him. Unlike, say, Jandek, whose goal is to remain anonymous while releasing an endless string of unjustly ignored albums, Kelly very likely wants, and certainly deserves, wider recognition. Play any one of his records and his fluency with melody and the sturdiness of his song craft will be immediately apparent. Surely anybody who owns a Death Cab for Cutie disc or any of the 900 posthumous Jeff Buckley releases can find a place in their collection for a Jeff Kelly record or two.
But there are some obvious problems, too, with Kelly that might explain why he is not famous. One is the abstruse milieu from which he draws some of his subject matter. In discussing the inspiration for songs from this new collection, Kelly refers to Debussy, Haworth Parsonage, novelist Helen Humphries, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and opera singer Natalie Dessay; and song titles like “Kissing Alma Mahler” and “Melisande” only reinforce the notion he’s awash in rarefied esoterica. Now, this is precisely the sort of cultural base that will make anti-intellectuals scream that he’s pretentious, but really such reference points are so gawky and idiosyncratic, they can only be sincere. While these topics are generally handled insightfully, they remain so particular to Kelly’s personal nexus of significance that you have to wonder what anyone else has to gain from immersing oneself in it. None of the songs are as inaccessible as they appear on paper, and if you didn’t know any better you’d just assume Kelly’s lyrics were the usual personal reflections you get from singer-songwriters, albeit with an unusual degree of articulate thoughtfulness. But you will know better, and unfortunately it’s likely to alienate you a bit.
Another problem is his thin and at times febrile voice, which always strains toward earnest yearning. Not gifted with the kind of voice that can be sweetly longing and full-throated at once, he’s not capable of the crooning his melancholic material calls for. His vocals tend to sound a bit pinched, and the ardor he wants to convey comes across more as discomfiture. Rather than baring his buffeted soul, he sounds as though his shoes are too tight. So the rapturousness of Tim Buckley and the gravitas of Leonard Cohen (to cite two feasible sources of inspiration) seems a bit beyond his grasp. Ultimately, he is more like a fellow Pacific Northwesterner, the late Elliott Smith, another excellent songwriter with a strong ear for compelling ‘60s-derived arrangements but an equally pallid voice.
Though Kelly’s music is often alleged to have a morbid quality, little of that is in evidence on For the Swan in the Hallway. There’s a residue of gloom in the sparse piano-based arrangement of “The Lock” (about a preserved piece of Emily Bronte’s hair); in the emphatic, minor-keyed guitar overdubs of “Afterimage” and in the buzzing organ fills of “The Swan on the Hill”. But many songs use a bright blend of acoustic and electric guitars, upbeat tempos and insistent drum programming, which creates an uncanny resemblance to Jesus Jones. This is especially true when some synthesizer licks and badly processed guitar sounds are dropped in, as on “Whispers of the Pool”. Thankfully, there are redeeming moments, such as the sauntering, string-laden “Oxford Street” and the S.F. Sorrow-like “The Girls of the Ford”. Even when Kelly uses a tired hook, as in “Ever So Lightly”, he has the savvy to liven it up with some loose, inspired playing, and one of his more drawling, nuanced vocal takes. In general, Kelly’s a capable recycler because he has a way of freshening what he borrows with apt ornamental touches or unexpected alterations in how they are paced or phrased. So at times it seems likes there’s something familiar and reassuring here for everyone. But in all, nothing here suggests Kelly is poised for a breakthrough to a larger audience, which is probably as large a compliment as can be paid to music so temperamentally wary of the lowest common denominator.