In the post-Celine Dion universe, women with big, booming voices tend to be viewed with suspicion. It’s like how no one wants to wear a business suit anymore:we tend to distrust the message when the messenger seems too professional. This may explain why Kelly Hogan has kept a low profile for so long. Though she has the pipes to pull off big radio ballads, she approaches her music like an indie rocker rather than a diva.
Because It Feel Good is Hogan’s second release for Bloodshot Records, a label which has become virtually synonymous with “insurgent” country in recent years. But roots music sans hippy/down-home bullshit is nothing new. Artists like Wilco (recently indie after a long stint on Reprise), Lucinda Williams, Alejandro Escovedo, Johnny Cash (with Rick Rubin), The Mekons, and Lucinda Williams have been undertaking a punk-informed revision of country for years.
Kelly Hogan’s specific gift to the alt-country universe, in addition to her voice, is an ability to strip a song down to its bare essence. Her own compositions with guitarist Andy Hopkins are sometimes lush, but when she tackles a cover she zeroes in on what attracted her to the song in the first place (usually the lyrics, so vocals go front and center). A song like “Speedfreak Lullaby”, for example, is so bare it sounds spooky at first. And more than just the arrangements are spare; Hogan rations her inflections as well, varying her voice only to highlight meaning or melody. Rococo vocalizing is as unlike her as wearing stretch pants.
If Kelly Hogan is the anti-Shania, her band probably isn’t Mutt Lange-approved either. Everything about them is a slap in the face to recent country trends. The musicians are long-timers on the indie scene and mostly Chicago-based. All are fine players — particularly guitarist Hopkins and multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse — but Hogan and her co-producer David Barbe have clearly selected takes more for character than perfection. When a song demands polish, as on “No, Bobby Don’t”, the band prove themselves more than capable of delivering it, but these occasions are few and far between. It’s a gritty approach which would never cut it in Nashville or L.A. but fits perfectly with Hogan’s intelligent, heartfelt singing, offbeat song selection and funny liner notes.
So why isn’t the record perfect? Perhaps I’m just pining for Nashville hokum, but at times Because It Feel Good seems a bit too restrained, too tasteful. Even after a decade of massive over-singing, it’s still thrilling to hear a voice like Hogan’s let loose. We get a little bit of it on “No, Bobby Don’t” and “(You Don’t Know) The First Thing About Blue”, but why not more? Tasteful is nice, but country has been redeemed from cheesiness already. Why not ham it up a bit. Here’s an idea: Hogan could tackle one of those country rockers Emmylou Harris used to do, the ones that always sounded like the theme song from a Burt Reynolds movie . . . I bet she could pull it off, and boy would it be fun.
Small quibbles aside, Because It Feel Good is a beautifully realized country record. It showcases a great singing talent, a sublime interpreter of songs you might even say if you were feeling prolix. Still, I can’t help wanting even more: more originals, more singing, more choruses, more pedal steel, more weepy ballads, more nicknames, more nonsensical shout-outs, more bandanas, duets with George Jones, everything. Hogan’s voice is just so beautiful and versatile. More please.