Sunday, January 8, 2017

Kelly's Lot: "Bittersweet" (2017) CD Review

The first Los Angeles band I saw in concert after moving to this city was Kelly's Lot. This was back in the late 1990s, and they were playing at an outdoor festival in North Hollywood, and I liked them immediately. They've gone through a lot of changes in the years since then, dipping into different musical realms, reinventing themselves while still keeping that great bluesy, ballsy core intact, and to my ears have gotten better and better. There is still that power at the heart of their music, even as they try different sounds, and that power comes mainly from lead singer Kelly Zirbes' vocals. There is a raw and beautiful honesty to every note she sings. She never offers anything artificial, and that in itself is noteworthy. But this band also delivers some damn good original songs. Their new album, Bittersweet, contains all original material, written or co-written by Kelly Zirbes. Lyrically and thematically, it is a very strong album. Yes, it's different from previous releases by the band, but I think their fans will enjoy this next turn in the journey, and the album should bring in some new fans as well.

Bittersweet opens with "About Her," which begins with percussion, and there is a brief moment at the beginning that makes me think of Los Lobos' "Kiko And The Lavender Moon." It's a cool tune, with an interesting vibe, and it features some wonderful work by Bill Johnston on clarinet. Yes, it's quite a bit different from earlier work by this band, but the blues are still present in Kelly's vocals. Here is a taste of the lyrics: "She understood your emotions/And gave you the key to your heart/She did something to you/That was warm and true/Don't let it fall apart/You got to do the right thing." That's followed by one of my personal favorites, "Come Home," a sweet, pretty, and incredibly moving folk song. Here Kelly's voice has a delicate power, vulnerable and passionate. She is accompanied only by Perry Robertson on guitar, which helps give the song an intimate feel. "No walls can hold me like your arms/No light to start my day/No answer will bring me peace/I cannot see the way/So come home to me/Come home." I highly recommend checking out this song, and that you listen to it without distractions.

The album then takes an abrupt turn with "Mr. Chairman," a fun bluesy tune with great old-time rock and roll touches on saxophone. That's Bill Johnston on sax. This tune also features some cool work on keys by Bobby Orgel, and is a song that might be more in line with what you know from this band, with Kelly singing, "I can't get down with nothin' but the blues." Oh yes. And then the band moves into country with "Thorn," with Doug Pettibone adding some delicious pedal steel. Check out these lines: "They say forgiveness will set you straight/And time will tick away the hate/And truth can never come too late/But it's too late."

Kelly's Lot goes in another strange and unexpected direction with "Sleep," which has pop elements and yet also a strong haunting quality. It was written by Kelly Zirbes and Scotty Lund. Scotty plays both bass and drums on this track, and also mixed and produced it. Ted Russell Kamp joins the band on guitar for this one. I've learned to pay close attention to the projects that Ted Russell Kamp gets involved in. He is a musician who gets around, but always seems to choose wisely. And this is a powerful and effective song. Check out these lyrics: "And the little boys I used to love/Smile as the evening fades/As their faces turn to angry men/In this bed I made." Excellent, right? It's followed by another intriguing track, though with a very different sound, "On Fire." It begins in a folk vein, and then kicks in with a great and sudden force. I always want to turn the volume up for that moment. "On Fire" was written by Kelly Zirbes and Perry Robertson.

"Bittersweet," the CD's title track, opens with a nod to "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," with Kelly Zirbes whistling that familiar theme. That song contains lines like "When Johnny comes marching home again/Hurrah, hurrah/We'll give him a hearty welcome then." Those lines, which are not sung in "Bittersweet," nevertheless provide an interesting contrast to the story of the song. The song is told from the perspective of a U.S. soldier who fought in Vietnam. As you're likely aware, many of those soldiers were not given a hearty welcome when they returned. But "Bittersweet" actually functions as sort of that welcome they didn't receive then. "I am strong and still standing here/I'm living proof that you can live with fear/It's time that we welcome each one home/Nobody should ever be that alone." It ends as it began, with Kelly whistling "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Frank Cisco Hinojosa plays harmonica on this track.

"Stay Away" has a delightful energy, and is one to get your toes tapping. Then "Love Is Hard To Catch" is a cool bluesy tune. "You've loved before/Don't settle for less." "Without A Song" features a sad, moving, beautiful vocal performance by Kelly Zirbes. It's a song about living in the moment, before the moments are gone, which will happen sooner than any of us would like to think. This song was written for the film Last Call At Murray's, in which it is sung by Paula Jai Parker. The band follows that with "Happy," which opens with these lines: "Happy is right around the corner/Happy is right behind the bend/Things are bound to get better/Get better, but we don't know when." Ah, I hope so.

CD Track List
  1. About Her
  2. Come Home
  3. Mr. Chairman
  4. Thorn
  5. Rise Above
  6. Sleep
  7. On Fire
  8. Bittersweet
  9. Stay Away
  10. Love Is Hard To Catch
  11. Without A Song
  12. Happy
  13. Proud
  14. Colours Of December
Bittersweet was released on January 6, 2017.

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