The Boston Phoenix
September 28 - October 5, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Solo flights

Paula Kelley and Martin Crotty go it alone

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Breaking up is hard to do, but going solo can be harder, especially after an artist has spent a long career as part of a solid band. Go out under your own name and you lose the security of being part of a group. But if the stakes tend to be higher, the expectations a bit more severe, well, there's also the chance to attain a little more glory -- even on the local level.

That's where local singer-songwriters Paula Kelley and Martin Crotty find themselves this year. They come from different band experiences. After playing a support role in Drop Nineteens, Kelley has been the frontwoman of various groups over the years, most recently Boy Wonder. Crotty, on the other hand, hasn't always been center stage, but as the lead-guitarist in Cliffs of Dooneen and then Superfly, he shared the spotlight with singer/frontman Eric Sean Murphy. Now, both Kelley and Crotty have ended up in similar places. Kelley's solo debut, A Bit of Everything (on her own Jacquesass label) and Crotty's pseudonymous debut, Flynn (on his own, unnamed label), are both textured, melodic records with a decidedly grown-up sound. Crotty's transformation is perhaps the bigger surprise since he's seldom done lead vocals before. Here he sings in a rich, folkish voice and layers guitar parts to good effect -- the base is acoustic, but tracks like "Don't Mind" (with drum loops and nasty wah-wah lead) show that his rock instincts haven't gone missing. Kelley's pop knack is more familiar by now, but the sound of her solo EP is more intimate than the album she made with Boy Wonder.

The obvious question about Kelley's going solo is why she'd bother. After all, her last bands -- Hot Rod and four incarnations of Boy Wonder -- have all revolved around her voice and songwriting. And she's always had enough stage presence (and fashion sense) to outshine whoever she plays with -- even though that's included talented folks like John Dragonetti (who played in Hot Rod before launching Jack Drag), bassist Paul Natale (now of the Den Mothers), and her long-time guitar partner Aaron Tap, who remains part of her solo band.

But the decision makes sense when one hears A Bit of Everything (the teaser for a still-in-progress album called Everything, which won't include all the EP's six tracks). It finds her following her instincts away from loud guitars and toward purer pop, as in Fleetwood Mac and Burt Bacharach. Her previous bands would have turned the material here into rock songs, but with Kelley playing most of the instruments, there's more melody than crunch and acoustic guitars dominate. It's a direction she's been headed in for years. The other change may be more of a surprise: she's become a more relaxed singer, dropping the tougher rock inflection she often favored. It's a more comfortable approach for her, one that brings out the sweetness in her voice.

Yet as bright as Kelley's songs are on the surface, there are darker, cynical undercurrents running through even her most upbeat tunes. Is that a fair reflection of her personality? "I'm not sure if I'm even that light on the surface," she notes over a drink at the Middle East. "My personality now is probably a little less sassy, and I don't feel I have to rock all the time. My songs used to be about individuals; now they're about the bigger picture, and I guess that could mean that I'm turning into an old fart. I haven't had a bitter relationship for a while, so I'm not writing about that anymore. But I'm still bitter about plenty of other things."

Like the music business. Kelley has been playing in bands for a full decade, and she was groomed for stardom in the early '90s, when Drop Nineteens and then Hot Rod were signed to Caroline. Those were the years when alternative rock and grunge were making their biggest commercial impact, and national success was higher on Kelley's agenda than establishing a local base. Now that the national balance has shifted away from underground rock, Kelley is courting a devoted local following. "I've had some success, but I won't let myself think I have. Because then I'd get complacent, and that's not good for a songwriter. The music business has obviously changed. With each project I do, I have less confidence I'll be a rock star, and I'm just going for the music. So as a result the music gets better. But maybe that's creeping into old-fartdom as well."

As for the transition from Boy Wonder to being a solo artist, it was a seamless one for Kelley: she was playing solo gigs at the Kendall Café within weeks of the final Boy Wonder show last January. Dropping the band identity, she admits, is "pretty much a psychological thing. I don't think I'm a particularly good bandleader. Even though I was the primary songwriter in Boy Wonder, I didn't want people to think it was a dictatorship, so I wasn't very good at being assertive. This way it's established that it's my thing, so I feel freer to be experimental."

She's also gotten more at ease with her voice, which has the same kind of little-girl innocence Juliana Hatfield's has. "I think my voice throws people, and that used to frustrate me. I've only lately come to accept it, and to feel that I don't have to be a rock chick. I'm not even trying to have an image anymore -- It's more like, `This is me, this is what it is.' People used to call Boy Wonder a bubblegum pop band, and somehow the dark side of it passed everyone by. I don't think there's any escaping it now."

Ask Martin Crotty what he's been up to lately and he cuts right to the chase. "Here, let me show you," he says, lifting his shirt to reveal a five-inch scar over the left side of his ribcage. It's the souvenir of a life-changing -- and damn near life-ending -- experience he had last winter when he broke his back in a household accident.

"I came this close to being paralyzed for the rest of my life," he recalls over coffee at Cambridge's 1369 Coffeehouse. "It was the week of Thanksgiving, one of my favorite times of year, and the CDs had just come back from the manufacturer, so I was feeling great. Then something possessed me to climb up a ladder and fix a bloody window." He lost his balance and fell 35 feet but was still able to get to a telephone and call 911, thinking he was in for an uncomfortable afternoon at the hospital. As it turned out, he was there for the next month. "My vertebrae burst, the first thing I felt was the power going out of my legs like an elevator going down. I went through nine hours of surgery, they took out two of my ribs and now I have titanium implants, four screws. I'm like Steve Austin."

Brushes with disaster always leave a mark on the psyche, and though Crotty was always focused and outgoing, his experience seems to have made him even more so. It's also given him a certain belief in fate. He'd been kicking the name Flynn (his mother's maiden name) around as a pseudonym, and then he was out having dinner and he noticed that the name on the bottle of wine he'd been drinking was, yes, Flynn. Fate also intervened when he was looking for a bass player: Scott Padgett came recommended by his nurse and got the gig after Crotty learned that Padgett had been through the same operation. "It seems to be a prerequisite for this band. I'm thinking that maybe we should change our name to Spinal Fusion."

The experiences of the past year have left Crotty less fretful about the music business. But he has yet to write any songs about what happened. "I've been thinking, `Aren't I supposed to be inspired by this whole thing?' But the songs I've been writing are more about what holds me back. I'm loving life, the fears I'd had are no longer fears. Having been in a position where I was almost not able to walk for the rest of my life, it feels so good now just to be able to stand up and pee. And I don't get stressed out like I used to. You know how it is in this business -- one minute you can be at the very top and the next it's `Who are you again?' "

Crotty's been in both positions. Cliffs of Dooneen were well-established as a local favorite; they had two major-label albums and even a national semi-hit with "Through an Open Window." Then they pulled a gutsy move: after a farewell Cliffs show in December 1995, the group broke up, immediately got back together, threw out all the old songs, and renamed themselves Superfly. Many Cliffs fans never accepted the switch. But to these ears Superfly were the better for replacing Cliffs of Dooneen's by-then-dated U2ish anthems with grittier, trashier, guitar-driven rock.

"I think it threw a lot of the Cliffs fans for a loop," Crotty admits. "And it [the mixed reaction] blew the froth off our beers." Crotty was one of the main instigators behind the Superfly move, so it's a bit of a surprise that he's gone in a gentler direction as Flynn. Credit that to his reconnection with his Irish roots. "Seeing Christy Moore was part of it -- that was the best show I've ever seen in my life. Such a great voice, so much passion and soul. And I thought, if I can even do a smidgen of what this guy can do, I'd be totally psyched."

Crotty, who started to play out with Flynn, hasn't had any trouble taking over the reins of his new project. "I've been on a high since the T.T. the Bear's show I played last month. With this there's no committee to go up against with my ideas. It's pure me."

This doesn't mean that Cliffs are over for good, especially now that their drummer, Lex Llanosm, is in the Flynn band. During their Superfly days they kept resisting offers to do a high-profile Cliffs of Dooneen reunion show, but Crotty figures that will happen sooner or later. Meanwhile, he's happy to let fate take its course. "I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, so I know there's a reason for this," he says in an introspective moment. "And someday it's going to hit me in the face exactly what that reason is."

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