If there is such a thing as a good penny -- you know, the opposite of the bad penny that shows up when you don't want it around -- then Kevin Welch is as good a way to personify it as any.
Factors both within and beyond his control seem to have conspired to keep him obscure while lesser talents rise to the top, but every couple of years he shows up in the CD racks with another batch of quality songs, a shiny lucky penny lying in your path on the sidewalk, one well worth picking up.
Millionaire, his latest, certainly fits that bill. He makes the analogy easy, the cover showing someone stooping to pick up a coin from the pavement. The disc itself even resembles a penny. Thanks, Kev.
Welch's albums always sound good, andMillionaire is no exception. He crafts spare, intimate songs that always seem like surreptitious recordings of a group of talented friends gathered in the front room of an old house.
The trouble is, with each subsequent release, he seems to take steps that make it more difficult to hear his music. He first drew notice in 1990 with a self-titled release on Reprise. Next came his high point, Western Beat an album that should have made him a star. It was a near-perfect blend of country, folk, and pop that had a seemingly endless supply of potential hits. Instead, the relative disinterest of the masses and his label seemed to send him in search of a new mix.
He formed the Dead Reckoning label in 1995 with like-minded fence-straddlers Kieran Kane, Tammy Rogers, and Harry Stinson. His first album for that label, Life Down Here On Earth, got notice if for no other reason than for the fact that it was among the first batch of releases from this high-profile band of renegades. It found Welch tapping into his roots a bit, sounding more like a Guy Clark acolyte than a possible contributor than the country charts.
Next came Beneath My Wheels, with a fuzzy cover and difficult songs. It seemed to dig a bit deeper in the trench of its predecessor. It was as solid as any of his discs, some real treasures revealed on repeat listens. But it did nothing to raise his profile. One wondered if this was the end of the road for Welch.
Should have known better. So what if his latest disc has a horrible cover, is almost impossible to find, and was recorded with a bunch of Danes? It's as good as ever, maybe his best, because it recaptures the genre-bending blend of classic country, folk, pop, and Stonesy blooze rock that made Western Beat such a find.
"I feel like I've been visited by a barn-raising crew of new neighbors with slightly different tools," he writes in the liner notes of his backing band. "And that we've built something unlike anything I've made before."
That may be overstating it, but not by much. The songs certainly sound like Kevin Welch songs, but there is a fire here, an energy that has been largely missing from his last two albums.
He ramps it up on "Choose to Believe", a chugging, rocking love song. It's a song with undercurrents, the kind that if watered-down enough by some hat act, it would make a fine single on country radio. While that track conjures the Rolling Stones, the track that follows, "Glorious Bounties" would sound just fine if covered by Bruce Springstreen and the E Street Band. It's the closest Welch comes, however, to shedding his signature sound.
Welch excels at story songs, and he doesn't disappoint on Millionaire. "Witness" slowly unspools, from a few precise details about the narrator's cat, to reveal itself as the story of a person hiding in the Witness Protection Program. It unfolds like a good short story, with appropriately eerie musical backing.
For such a talented songwriter, Welch always has peppered his albums with more covers than you'd expect. Here he records only two. But as usual, he makes them his own. The first is "Long Cold Train", a new one on me, a slow-building rocker that sounds for all the world like a Welch original. He also takes on Van Morrison's "Queen of the Slipstream", a recent track from Van the Man that fits Welch's style well.
Welch's songwriting is as sharp as ever, and he continues to grow into his craggy voice. Few people hear his music, but for those of us who seek it out, Millionaire is another gem of a record.