- SPIN Rating:8 of 10
Kelly Hogan is a great singer. She was a great singer in the early '90s when she fronted the Jody Grind, an Atlanta band that played a generally unclassifiable mix of pop, country, jazz, rock, soul, and torch songs. She was a great singer when she played rhythm guitar (and rarely sang) in an early incarnation of the reverb-happy garage/surf/blues/punkabilly outfit the Rock*A*Teens. She was a great singer when she released a string of under-heard, alt-country-leaning solo albums in the late '90s and early 2000s, and she's been a great singer for the past decade, backing up Neko Case, Jakob Dylan, Andrew Bird, the Mekons, and Mavis Staples.
What she's only rarely been during these past two decades is a songwriter. Once upon a time that wouldn't have made a difference, and if she performed commercial pop, country, or R&B, it still wouldn't. But in the world she inhabits — that glorious land of PBR, ironic t-shirts, and dudes wearing ski hats indoors in the summertime — real artists write songs. This is a dilemma that Hogan herself has pondered. "It's a time-honored tradition," she noted in a recent interview. "The writers write the song. The singers sing it. I always say Bob Dylan just fucked it up for everybody. You have to do both or you don't get any respect."
To her great credit, Hogan has kept on fighting the good fight for the traditional division of musical labor. For her new album, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain — her first in more than a decade — she solicited songs from friends and colleagues, most of whom either contributed something they wrote specifically for her or offered unreleased material. She tackles their work in ways the writers themselves (mostly) couldn't, or at least wouldn't.
And so, on the title track — a warm, Willie Nelson-ish stroll written by Robyn Hitchcock — her voice dances lightly through the chorus, delivering the line, "I like to keep myself in pain," as a matter-of-fact shrug. But then she luxuriates through the verses, lingering on phrases like "Your voice has come to haunt me so," before she really lets it rip on the bridge: "Pain's the only thing you left meeeee/ If I let it go then I won't know who I aaaam!" The effect, when paired with the gorgeously subtle work of her band — which includes Booker T. Jones, Bill Withers sideman James Gadsen, and Dap-Kings leader Gabriel Roth — strikes a perfect balance of pathos and light-heartedness in a song that, on paper, has a ton of the former and none of the latter. Yes, Hogan seems to be telling us, I am an unholy, depressive mess, but I'm not going to let it keep me from being good company.
Those always have been the twin poles of Hogan's musical personality, more or less, and part of her gift as an interpreter lies in picking songs that help that personality shine through. "We Can't Have Nice Things," a pokey, jazz-inflected jaunt written by Andrew Bird and author Jack Pendarvis, views heartbreak through the lens of a trashed apartment: "Step around the wedding presents we're returning to the store / The lamp beside the window isn't burning anymore." It's a tragedy that Hogan delivers as comedy, which makes the whole thing more tragic. On the lounge-y "Daddy's Little Girl," Hogan turns this same trick inside out, singing the wry, comic, M. Ward-penned portrait of Frank Sinatra as a world-weary tragedy. And, yes, the results are funnier than if she'd simply played it straight.
Hogan's voice itself is an extraordinary tool capable of sounding completely at home singing almost anything — it's hard to tell where her range begins and ends, because she simply never sounds as if she's straining. But her greatest gift is for figuring out exactly what a song needs and not trying to do anything more. Her voice floats gently around "Slumber's Sympathy," a weird little insomniac's lullaby written by Roth that feels a bit like a Roy Orbison outtake; Hogan repeats the line "Sleep won't come to a restless heart" in a breathy coo that makes it sound like a taunt from the subconscious. Robbie Fulks' country-pop shuffle "Whenever You're Out of My Sight" seethes with jealousy, but both Hogan and her band operate with characteristic restraint, so the result sounds sad, not shrill.
I Like to Keep Myself in Pain also includes one Hogan original, a solid piece of country-soul songcraft called "Golden" that she wrote for her friend Neko Case when they were both struggling artists around the turn of the millennium. With so much time having passed between when she wrote the song and when she recorded it, Hogan was able to treat it like any other composition here, finding meaning and nuances that the writer never originally intended. "I want to hear your voice coming out of my radio," she sings sweetly. "I want to see your face on the billboard signs." With Case having gone on to something approaching indie-rock stardom, it's hard not to think that Hogan's finally singing this one to herself.