Kelley Ryan & "Twist" -- She Tastes Like Summer in the Dark
Kelley Ryan: "She tastes like summer in the dark." I fell for Kelley Ryan when she sang those lyrics in her opening number "About a Girl" on the March 28 Mountain Stage show. But I was predisposed because even though I had never heard her before, I knew her set would be something special as Don Dixon & Marti Jones were also on the stage backing her up. And as a side note, I have to be the only person on the planet who knows Dixon not as REM's original producer but rather as the husband of Marti Jones, who's been making lovely and vastly under appreciated music for over 25 years. Kelley's new album, "Twist" is her fifth -- her other four are under her nom de plume "astroPuppees" -- was released in middle of the winter. The irony is that it is the most summery record I have heard in a very long time. It's one of those records you put on the car stereo, roll your windows down & slide back the sunroof and drive by the ocean, through the mountains or just down the street. It's infectious. Kelley had two fortunate events in her musical life. First, her father was a disc jockey near Portland, Oregon who not only exposed her to loads of music, but who also introduced her to many of the notable rock & roll performers who passed through their town. Second, when she moved to southern California she fell in love with & married a music publisher. And music publishers know just about everyone. Plus, she describes her husband Dan as a living, breathing music collection, her personal juke box. There is little doubt that his record/CD collection puts my 10,000 to shame.
So, it was with this background that nurtured her talent and lead to her first astroPuppees record, "You Win the Bride." As with all her subsequent astroPuppees recordings, it was self-produced -- nothing unusual for a self-described studio rat -- released in 1996 and mixed by Don Dixon. Other albums were released every three years or so. They generated some buzz, but, unfortunately, not significant or concrete notice. I hope that changes with "Twist." With Marti Jones contributing vocals, it's also her first album to have another producer -- Don Dixon. As I have gone back and listened to her earlier work, it's clear to my ears that Dixon's co-production enables Kelley's songwriting talents more noticeable, the music to more distinctly shine and the songs themselves to be more centrally focused. Like a therapist, sometimes you need that emotionally detached outsider to bring some distance that enables you get outside of yourself.
What is also obvious about "Twist" is that is an album, not merely a collection of songs. It's arrangements and tempos fluctuate, sway and keeps you on your toes or rocking back on your heels. One song will have you daydreaming, the next one dancing and the one after that just stops your heart. "Twist" -- both the songs and the album as a whole -- is in the grand tradition of the 1970's Warner Bros. Records when Joe Boyd was head of A&R. (By the way, Boyd discovered Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny among others. He also was in control of the soundboard when Dylan went electric at Newport in '65). Warners in the 70's was the last great major popular music label with such artists as Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, Van Dyke Parks, Dire Straits, and my personal fav Chunky, Novi & Ernie, whose lead, Lauren Wood, eventually went solo, among the many others.
Mountain Stage, March 28, 2010 (Photo by Amos Perrine) "Twist" had the working title of it's first song, "About a Girl" as the album's songs are about a girl -- or about different women, about different aspects of a woman: "She tastes like summer in the dark/She feels like fire in your heart." If you cannot relate to those lines or be moved by them, then you have never been in love. "Twist" is not only my most played record of the year, it's the most invigorating album of original material since Nellie McKay's "Obligatory Villagers." She has also been the answer to the most frequently asked question, "Who is that?" when I put the album on for guests and during frequent listening parties -- remember those? You can tell a mark of a great record is that every time you hear it, you not only hear something new, you invariably have different favorites. Unlike all too many records, there's no filler here, not a single dud. I put it on and it becomes the proverbial soundtrack to the day's comings and goings, even the most mundane acts around the house take on a glimmer that seems lost when it's over. It adds a patina to the day, one that stays with you long after you leave and close the door.
Mountain Stage, March 28, 2010 (Photo by Amos Perrine) As Larry Groce noted in his introduction to Kelley on that March 28 Mountain Stage show, there was a lot of testosterone on the stage that night. There's also a lot of in music -- seems like it's always been that way. It never occurred to me -- on a conscious level, at least -- that I have a penchant for female artists until a fellow writer noted it. Just as the heart wants what it wants, we are moved by what we are moved by. And I never gave much thought about it either. But, to paraphrase Iris DeMent, I just let the mystery be. Perhaps that's why. Art does not so much make statements as it asks questions, explores mysteries. As creativity is a characteristic of the anima part of our selves, it should, therefore, not really come as any surprise that women are more in touch with that part of themselves. "Twist" has twelve songs, eleven originals and a poignant cover of Beck's "Lost Cause." And even though my favs keep changing -- like the women you pass on a New York street on any given day-- the one that I keep coming back to is "Monkey With a Flashlight." Uptempo, with lyrics like: "You're so fine/I'll let you run my red lights/You're a little offline/It's just what what I like/You give me that smile/Can't sleep at night." And that's before we get to heart of the matter. The one person most everyone has heard but not heard of also plays a significant role on the record, Van Dyke Parks. While he has a string of absolutely great albums to his credit, his music and arrangements are everywhere and his work with Brian Wilson cannot be ignored. Van Dyke adds two arrangements on the album, most significantly one is the closing track, "The Beautiful Child." Opening tracks need to hook you -- and "About a Girl" does -- middle tracks need to make you jump -- and "Monkey With a Flashlight" is a killer -- but it's the closing track that's the most difficult. It's the one that leaves you with a feeling, a summation as well as a counterpoint to what went before. "The Beautiful Child" does just that and when she closes the song with "We live and die by love" Van Dyke's string arrangement that continues after the lyric has ended makes that thought, that emotion linger. It lingers in your head and your heart. It lingers and you savor it, like a lover's first kiss.
Mountain Stage, March 28, 2010 (Photo by Amos Perrine) Since seeing Kelley on that Mountain Stage show, we've chatted and had a very nice email correspondence. Seems we have a lot in common, not just musical sensibilities, but also a fashion-sense for multi-colored Converse hi-tops! If there's one record this year that you go out on a limb, unheard and get this one. Or, trust me enough to get a couple on iTunes. Speaking of which, Kelley has several free podcasts on iTunes, including an audio interview on Brandon's Buzz. Her Mountain Stage set is also available -- for free -- on the NPR Music site, iTunes and the archive portion of the Mountain Stage web site. Also check out her website, www.kelleyryan.net or the many homemade music videos and live performance clips on YouTube. Thus, there is absolutely no reason not to get Kelley Ryan and her music onto your iPod, in the CD player and into your life.