Paul Kelly & The Stormwater Boys: Foggy Highway
Kelly has made an album that fails to cross over from bluegrass to capture the average Paul Kelly listener.
In July 2004 on a talk show on Australian TV, Aussie folk icon Paul Kelly did something that most musicians would never have the guts to do: he played a song by The Lovin' Spoonful -- I think it's called "Never Going Back" -- and after one verse he switched to his classic "From St. Kilda to Kings Cross". Of course they fit together perfectly. His comment was "songs come from other songs" -- and maybe that's true for most folk musicians, and maybe that's why it is so easy for so many people to like, but not love, his music. Over 25 years and 20 albums on, Kelly has resorted to reaching to other genres to find relevance.
Foggy Highway is a follow-up of sorts to Smoke, Kelly's 1999 foray into bluegrass with the Melbourne-based bluegrass band, Uncle Bill. On his new disc, Kelly collected individual musicians from around Australia to create The Stormwater Boys -- violin, banjo, mandolin, upright bass -- and the result is a real, authentic bluegrass sound. The twist is Kelly's voice: wry, broad and honest, it cannot help but be bush-tucker, true-blue, ocker-Aussie -- even when trying to ape a bluegrass-country twang. This is an advantage, especially when Kelly reveals his wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. It only happens a few times on this disc, but they're highlights, as on "Stumbling Block": "If I had the balls I'd wrap this thing up in plastic and call it art."
Kelly's best songs have always been vivid, novella-detailed pictures of life in all its moods, with characters famous (Don Bradman) and unknown (Vincent Lingiarri). Well, bluegrass is about storytelling, too, so the marriage seems natural, at first. But except for a few standout tracks, it seems that Kelly has concentrated more on capturing the lonely, pining nature of bluegrass' traditional subjects -- prefiguring the intense loneliness of the moment of death, and what comes after -- than on telling the stories of the songs' characters. This is a mistake, because it subjugates the singer's well-proven strengths to the form.
One exception is "They Thought I Was Asleep", which tells of a boy overhearing an argument between his parents on the car ride home one evening. The only time on the album that Kelly's natural storytelling ability is paired perfectly with the traditional banjo and harmonica accompaniment. Elsewhere, as on "Foggy Highway" and "You're Learning" (featuring the Australian country darling Kasey Chambers on raw backup vocals), we're left with little of the vivacious imagery that makes Kelly classics "To Her Door", or "Roll on Summer" memorable.
In the end, Kelly has made an album that fails to cross over from bluegrass to capture the average Paul Kelly listener. He's made a solid record with good musicians and tight arrangements, but he's done it largely by discarding what it is has made him so appealing over the years.