The world may be going to hell in a hand-cart, but there’s no point today in worrying about the world coming to an end; it’s already tomorrow in Australia, and those sunny Antipodeans produce some fine music on the other side of the world. Paul Kelly has been a professional musician since 1974 and over the years has constructed an impressive catalogue of 19 studio albums, his last being 2012’s Spring & Fall. Austere and serious-minded, this last record was a heart-breaker, requiring concentration and gentle reflection from the listener, but well worth the effort. Having toured the album, Kelly opted for a sabbatical which somehow turned into a working holiday due to the recent The Merri Soul Sessions. Initially funded by a PledgeMusic campaign, the project started out as a series of 7″ vinyl singles, now brought together and added to in the form of this album on general release.
The Merri Soul Sessions is by no means a solo Paul Kelly album, but the product of a collective under the banner of “Paul Kelly Presents”; for two weeks at the end of February 2014, the crew recorded a song a day, rehearsing the band in the mornings and then recording live with the singers in the afternoons. Although Kelly wrote all of the songs (sometimes with other writers) and plays in the band, he appears as a solo vocalist for only two out of the 11 tracks; as an internationally acclaimed and long-standing artist this shows some generosity of spirit as, without denigrating the other (Australian) artists in any way, they are undoubtedly less well known than Mr. Kelly, inside or outside of their home country.
The sessions team is made up of Vika and/or Linda Bull (sometimes alone, sometimes together), a vocal duo who previously worked with Kelly on Archie Roach’s Charcoal Lane, here providing vocals for five tracks; Clairy Browne, lead vocalist for Melbourne band “The Bangin’ Rackettes” who features on two songs; Dan Sultan, an Aborigine singer and songwriter, and Kira Puru, from industrial blues band “Kira Puru and the Bruise”, who take one vocal each.
Despite the diverse range of musicians involved, The Merri Soul Sessions has a cohesive feel with a warm, holiday atmosphere of relaxed sessions with friends. That’s not to say the music is always chilled-out (it slants pointedly towards ramped-up classic soul), but an overarching continuity is provided through one band’s impressive chops, a little like a soul review.
Weather, in the form of rain, starts and finishes the album; in a dry, hot country its importance cannot be overstated (think about the lost family surviving 11 days in the outback by collecting rain water); the opening furtive sneak of “Smells Like Rain” (with Linda Bull) has a deep, snaky groove and the closer, “Hasn’t It Rained” (with Kelly and the Bull sisters), is a catchy, upbeat rock and roll gospel. Rain appears more casually in at least two other songs on the album; perhaps the “Merri Creek”, which runs alongside the Melbourne recording studio where the record was made, influenced more than just the title of the album.
Mostly though, as is traditionally the case for soul music, the subject of the songs is love and relationships; “What You Want” (featuring Vika Bull) simmers with sexual tension and the exceptional “Keep on Coming Back for More” (originally released on Kelly’s live box set The A to Z Recordings, but here sung by Clairy Browne) positively explodes with it. Vika Bull covers Kelly’s “Sweet Guy” (from album So Much Water So Close to Home), which benefits from a fast tempo with a bright, ’60s band arrangement.
It’s not until the fifth track, “Righteous Woman”, that Kelly takes the lead for a spooky song about a starlet and a soldier, darkly enhanced by Kelly’s resonant singing and quirky backing vocals. This male interlude is continued with the classy and positive pop of “Don’t Let a Good Thing Go”. Dan Sultan’s vocal is exquisite and his voice perfectly matches the song.
Clairy Browne returns for the dramatic torch song “Where Were You When I Needed You”, which slowly builds with subtle layers of percussion (in particular, some noteworthy castanets) and some cinematographic whistling to a sudden drop into the loneliness of a solitary voice and acoustic guitar. The sequencing of “Thank You” (sung by Kelly) straight after this emphasises it doesn’t hurt to be grateful for what we have. The male character is a continuation of the one described in “Sweet Guy”, changing from day to day, reminding the listener of the unpredictability of human nature. Reminiscent of a John Hiatt ballad, it’s a melodious addition to Kelly’s work as a singer-songwriter. “I Don’t Know What I’d Do”, sung by Kira Puru, takes the idea one step further, the consequence of ingratitude being the loss of a loved one, and the song successfully conveys an intense fear of being left behind. Then “Down on the Jetty” (Vika & Linda Bull) artfully describes the moment of actually being left behind, with the sense of perspective of a departing boat getting smaller. Water has again made an appearance, but this time it provides an unfortunate means of travel.
Despite the broken hearts, seething sensuality and relationships on the brink, The Merri Soul Sessions is light-hearted and fun, and seems made to be spun on a vinyl turntable in the small hours of the morning. The band and vocal performances show off the breadth of Australia’s talent and the songs are of consistently high standard. Kelly may have taken a detour off the beaten track, stumbled into a river, but sometimes it’s the path less travelled that takes us to a more interesting place.
Label: Universal Australia
US Release Date: 27 JAN 2015
UK Release Date: 15 DEC 2014
FIRST PUBLISHED POPMATTERS 19 JAN 2015