Paula Kelley: Some Suckers Life, Pt. 1

[22 June 2006]

By Quentin B. Huff

The Trouble With Demos or How They Fit Into Your Career

Whenever an artist releases an “album” of outtakes, demos, or “lost” recordings, there’s a certain ambivalence about it. There are always competing views, including the following: 

Pro: Such an album offers a roundabout glimpse into the creative process based on the portions the artist (or record company) elected not to include on a more deliberate project.  Under this theory, you gain insight into what the artist created by examining what the artist threw away, something like gaining more insight into Michelangelo’s masterful sculpture of David by studying the bits of marble he tossed aside.

Con: An album of outtakes and lost recordings isn’t a “deliberate project” at all. It’s more of a haphazard collection of loser tracks from various time periods, bound together by the fact that they are mediocre at best and terrible at worst.

Pro: Artists release these outtakes because some of their material isn’t radio-friendly and, since this music is unlikely to fit neatly within the appropriate music industry pigeonhole, fans can only get access—legal access, that is—to this avant-garde, anti-cookie-cutter material through official compilations. (Note that when relying on this rationale, the proponent will invariably use the phrase “light of day”, as in: “These cutting edge songs never saw the light of day, until now.”)

Con: By virtue of the fact that they were “lost” in the first place, these songs are so forgettable, they don’t even resonate with the artist. They aren’t “radio-friendly”; they just don’t have hooks, or they’re in the wrong key, or they are too (gasp!) boring.  Instead of leaving these tracks unheard, as they should be, artists and labels think they can repackage songs that suck and call them “rarities”.

You get the idea.  But the natural ambivalence that accompanies these releases is exactly what makes Paula Kelley’s Some Sucker’s Life, Part 1 worth a listen.  Developed from demos and recordings she rediscovered during her move from Boston, Massachusetts to Los Angeles, California, this release does more things right than wrong, making it a decent addition to your Paula Kelley library.  I say “decent” because the title, being that this is “Part 1”, implies that there might be a “Part 2” down the line.  With that in mind, it will be interesting to see whether or not consumers will have a desire for more of this material.

Please note, however, that you must have a Paula Kelley library in order to make additions to it.  If you don’t have one, get one. If you haven’t heard of Ms. Kelley, getting to know her can be a bit like piecing together a puzzle with your very own Da Vinci Code. Some bits appear on her website. Other pieces appear in interviews with her on the ‘net. More comes in her music.

Here’s how I did it:

Start with her last name, “Kelley”.  Paula’s “Kelley” sounds like “Grace Kelly”.  Artwork has “grace”, especially the “Baroque” period.  Paula Kelley has described her music as “Baroque pop”, containing orchestral arrangements and other elements not generally considered relevant to indie-pop. 

The “pop” in “indie-pop” rhymes with “drop”.  Ms. Kelley was a member of the Drop Nineteens.  Remember “Grace Kelly”? Well, she also wore nice shoes. The Drop Nineteens are considered part of the British “shoegazer” movement, a musical genre characterized by introspection and a healthy use of distortion.  Shoegazers, it is said, are so called because they look at their feet while playing, or are focused on their effects pedals. 

Whatever the origin of the label, the D19s were getting hot, but they didn’t stay together.  But, speaking of “hot”, Kelley moved on to Hot Rod. 

Boys often collect cars, real ones and toy ones. A boy might call such a car a “hot rod” and wonder where he can find more.  Boys wonder.  Boy wonders. Ah! Kelley joined the band Boy Wonder before venturing out as a solo artist. 

As a soloist, Kelley continued to pen lyrics and music, working independently to figure out where everything fit.  How things fit can determine success. Sometimes it’s a lot of trouble.  Kelley released the gem The Trouble With Success or How You Fit into the World in 2003.

And there you have it—Paula Kelley in a nutshell.

That 2003 release of hers was extremely well done.  Kelley’s darling voice floated effortlessly over those brilliant soundscapes.  However, don’t expect Some Sucker’s Life, Part 1 to present an alternate outtake universe of The Trouble With Success….  Mainly, Some Sucker’s Life covers the years that overlap her tenure with the Drop Nineteens, Hot Rod, and Boy Wonder.  The time period spans from 1992 to 2005, but the selections are mostly from the ‘90s.  Nothing on Sucker’s is as divine as “A New Time”, “The Girlfriend”, or “Where Do You Go” from The Trouble With Success…, but it has its moments. As I said before, the collection does more things right than wrong.

For one thing, it opens with an intoxicating number called “High Boots”.  In the liner notes, Kelley wisely takes advantage of the pro-demo theory that outtakes provide fans with greater insight into the artist’s career.  Her notes offer such insight for each song. For “High Boots”, she calls it the “strongest song from the first Boy Wonder demo”. It’s a solid number, defiant in tone and lyricism, yet delivered with impassioned vulnerability.

The next highlight is “Born to Be a *” (that asterisk represents the “star” symbol actually used in the tracklist).  Recorded on Kelley’s Tascam four-track, as were most of the other songs, Kelley’s notes lament the “degradation of the sound” caused by her four-track methodology.  Still, in this context, the effort works to her advantage.  It speaks volumes (no pun intended) about the authenticity of the collection.  No one expects a demo Kelley found in the bottom of a moving box to sound “perfect”.  As a consequence, there’s plenty of distortion and fuzziness on this album and, frankly, you can’t get much more raw and authentic than that.

“Burnin’ For You”, a Blue Oyster Cult classic, makes a grand appearance here, uniquely garnished with Kelley’s vocals. Kelley strums the guitar while Lilly Aycud adds the trumpet.  Later, there’s “B.S. I Love You”, which was somehow numbered in the liner notes as #11 when it’s really track five.  “B.S.” is the sweetest little punk song you’d ever want to meet.  In this same vein, “Your Big World” also rocks its little heart out.

Another good move was the inclusion of “Goodbye September”, recorded in 2005, described as a “new demo”.  Again, this addition subscribes to the idea that fans will be interested in hearing Kelley’s progression from lead singer to solo artist, from “one-note guitar solos” to more elaborate song arrangements.  That’s right, PK, throw us a bone! Seriously, “Goodbye September” is simply gorgeous.  The rediscovery of her piano playing is evident here, in contrast to the guitar and bass formula of the older material. Yet, it followed nicely from the folksy “Over Your Head”.  “Goodbye September” also fits the mood and style of “Girl of the Day”, which leaves you to ponder what “Girl of the Day” might become if Kelley ever decides to revisit the composition to include piano.

In addition to the regular album content, Some Sucker’s Life is an enhanced CD that includes “tons more stuff”.  There are photos and songs and videos on the CD-Rom, just waiting to be explored.  Not a bad deal, even if the deal includes long lost recordings.

So there you have it. Paula Kelley demonstrates how to avoid outtake mishaps on Some Sucker’s Life, Part 1.  Clearly, despite the catchiness of many of the songs, they aren’t up to the high standards she set on her 2003 release. Rather, that album was her sculpture of David, and the demos on this release are her tossed-off, albeit intriguing, pieces of marble from previous work.  But that’s all right.  It’s just enough to hold you over until she completes and releases her next album of new (or at least not “lost”) material.

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