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Romantic sides
Paul Kelly puts a little love into his new Ways & Means

Anyone can write a love song. The pop canon is filled with them. But writing mature love songs — love songs that aren’t corny or mawkish or, as Paul McCartney once put it, "silly" and "little" — is a challenge. And writing two CDs worth of love songs, 21 tracks that run the gamut from romantic to carnal to spiritual, as Australian Paul Kelly has done on his latest release, Ways & Means (spinART) — that’s an achievement.

"When you’re younger, it’s easy to write about unrequited love and love gone wrong," Kelly suggests over the phone from Down Under as he prepares to leave for a US tour that will bring him to the Paradise this Monday. "But to write about love that’s working in some way, without being banal or smug . . . as someone who’s been writing songs for a long time, I wanted to see if we could write the good stuff."

Kelly has been writing "the good stuff" for a good long time, though his new album’s focus on love songs is a departure. He released his first single in Australia in 1979 and his first album two years later. An observer and a storyteller rather than a confessional singer-songwriter, he became a hero with mid-’80s albums like Gossip (A&M) by letting his music speak of Australia. The musical stylings may have been based on the continent’s rich reserves of folk, country, and blues, but the tales told of 13-hour bus rides "From St. Kilda to King’s Cross" and of heroes like "Bradman," Australia’s legendary cricket player, Sir Donald Bradman (Kelly was an avid cricket player and is still a fan). "I’ve always preferred music that stinks of where it comes from, whether it’s Howlin’ Wolf or the Velvet Underground, or Calvin Singh, Dr. Dre, or the Jayhawks — music that has a strong sense of place. It’s a line of songwriting that goes from Chuck Berry through Lou Reed, very visual music, incredibly literate and cinematic. I was aware that I wanted to name places like my streets and towns, and what people were wearing."

There’s an irony, of course, in that Kelly’s kind of storytelling and roots music fits snugly into the contemporary format known as Americana. He and fellow Aussie Kasey Chambers are, in fact, core Americana artists; they’re also EMI Australia labelmates, and they sang together on "I Still Pray," from her album Barricades and Brickwalls (Warner Bros.). In Australia, Kelly’s Americana bona fides have been underlined by one-off projects little known here, such as a bluegrass album recorded under the name Uncle Bill and a funk/reggae/R&B disc he recorded under the pseudonym Professor Ratbaggy. He’s also a proponent of Aboriginal music, having collaborated with Archie Roach, Kev Carmody, and the band Yothu Yindi, all Aboriginal stars. "A lot of American music has become ‘world music.’ Australia’s picked up a lot of American and British influences, so we’ve got that with our own style that has been evolving for the last 40 to 50 years as well."

What Kelly shares with his songwriting heroes is an economy of scale. He relays a great deal in a few words. At his most literary, he’s a musical cousin of Raymond Carver, master of the bare-bones short story. One of his most gripping story songs, "Everything’s Turning to White," is in fact based on "So Much Water So Close to Home," Carver’s chilling tale of fishermen buddies and a girl’s dead body told from the point of view of one of the men’s wives.

His new music, especially on the energized first disc of Ways & Means (disc two is by design more meditative), tends to be playful. His current touring line-up — the same musicians who play on Ways & Means — includes his nephew Dan Kelly (guitar and harmonies) and guitarist Dan Luscombe, brother of Kelly’s percussionist, Peter Luscombe. The bass player is Bill McDonald. That gives him the comfort of family, not to mention some good singers to add muscle to his own intimate vocal style. "I like to try singing white soul, trying to sound like Curtis Mayfield, but my falsetto’s not that strong. The two young Dans, the way they interplay, and their great harmony voices, kind of pushed us into a kind of celebratory music."

Paul Kelly and his band perform this Monday, March 8, at the Paradise, 967 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston; call (617) 931-2000.

Issue Date: March 5 - 11, 2004
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