Song of the Day, December 31: Plant White Roses by Kelly Hogan

HoganMerrittRosesToday’s song is an inspired cover from Kelly Hogan’s I Like to Keep Myself In Pain. Stephin Merritt wrote Plant White Roses for his first Magnetic Fields album, Distant Plastic Trees. It was cut from later releases of the disc, becoming one of his famous “obscurities”. When Hogan began assembling material for her 2012 album, she asked her talented friends for contributions. Merritt offered her his roses.

It’s a song of yearning — “plant white roses and plan to cry” — a sort of urban country punk. With Hogan’s amazing voice giving it a barely restrained delivery it becomes a quirky torch song. Somehow it seems as though Merritt wrote it just for her, a tribute both to his writing and her singing.

Enjoy this great song today.

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Song of the Day, April 21: I’m A Fool to Want You

JodyGrindTrashFoolToday’s song originated in 1951 and has become a jazz-pop standard. Frank Sinatra wrote it with Joel Herron and Jack Wood for sessions the singer recorded with the Ray Charles Singers. When he moved from Columbia to Capitol in 1957, he revisited the song, making it one of his first stereo recordings.

A moving, melancholy song of unrequited love, it has been covered by dozens of singers over the years, ranging from Billie Holliday to Elvis Costello, from Bob Dylan to Shirley Bassey. My favorite rendition is by the wonderful Atlanta group the Jody Grind, who used it to close their debut LP.

Recording only two albums before an auto accident killed two of the band, they created a distinctive alt-jazz rock sound. Singer Kelly Hogan, who has gone on to solo success and is a much in-demand session singer, honed her powerful chops on the group’s eccentric array of selections. She turns in a darkly moving interpretation that surges with longing.

Enjoy this dark pop gem today.

Song of the Day, June 3: It’s Only Make Believe

HardingHoganMakeBelieveToday’s song is It’s Only Make Believe. Country star Conway Twitty wrote it early in his career with help from band mate and childhood friend Jack Nance. (No, not the quirky actor who frequently worked with David Lynch!) His first major hit, it was also his only #1 on the pop charts. The song is an earnest recounting of unrequited love. It’s nicely constructed, with just enough emotion to catch the listener without overwhelming. Twitty’s delivery is quite fine, if a bit burdened by the musical tropes of the day. It’s been covered many times, with Glen Campbell taking it into the Pop and Country top 10s.

My favorite rendition of the song seems unlikely at first. Folk-pop singer and songwriter John Wesley Harding is close friends with alt-rock diva Kelly Hogan. They like to pop in at each other’s shows when they can, and I’ve seen them do this at a number of shows. Their show-stopper is a stunning rendition of It’s Only Make Believe. Kelly’s voice can make the most of almost anything, and Wes provides a sympathetic foil. Fortunately, insurgent country label Bloodshot included a nice take of their duet on the quirky compilation disc Making Singles, Drinking Doubles.

Enjoy this impressive alt-country cover today.

Song of the Day, December 27: Haunted by Kelly Hogan

HoganHauntedToday’s song is Haunted by Kelly Hogan. When this powerful vocalist returned to the studio in 2012 after an absence of several years, she came armed with a host of songs by many friends and collaborators. One of the finest was written by Jon Langford — late of the Mekons — who had worked with Hogan many times in the past. It’s an energetic song about determination and its varied payoffs. Hogan is in fine voice, belting out the song as it demands but with a certain nuance that makes the most of the lyrics.

Haunted don’t talk so haunted
There’s things you wanted and things you feel
Here is one for all the done for
What have you come for?
Why are you here?

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Album of the Week, December 22: I Like to Keep Myself in Pain by Kelly Hogan

HoganKeepMyselfKelly Hogan was born and raised in Atlanta, GA. She rose to prominence in the Jody Grind, an eclectic band that mixed jazz, country, pop, indie rock, and whatever else they thought sounded good into a delightful stew. Hogan’s powerful voice and strong sense of musical nuance blended well to make the mix magical. Sadly two of the band were killed in a car accident shortly after the release of their second album. Hogan continued to sing in Atlanta clubs and worked with the Rock*A*Teens for a couple of years. She also released a solid debut album that showed off a clearer — but still varied — sense of music. Over the years she has moved to Chicago; worked as a bartender, personal assistant, and label promoter; and (perhaps most famously) become a regular member of Neko Case’s band. What she hasn’t done is release many records, with only two discs coming out between her solo debut in 1996 and last year. I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, however, was well worth the wait.

Title I Like to Keep Myself In Pain
Act Kelly Hogan
Label Anti- Release Date June 4, 2012
Producer Kelly Hogan and Andy Kaulkin
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Dusty Groove
  2. We Can’t Have Nice Things
  3. I Like to Keep Myself in Pain
  4. Haunted
  5. Daddy’s Little Girl
  6. Golden
  7. Ways of the World
  8. Slumber’s Sympathy
  9. Plant White Roses
  10. Sleeper Awake
  11. The Green Willow Valley
  12. Whenever You’re Out of My Sight
  13. Pass On By

The album features a stellar band: legendary keyboardist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Scott Ligon, bassist Gabriel Roth, and prolific session drummer James Gadson. This unit gets behind Hogan’s complex musical vision and provides flawless support. The songwriters are a powerful bunch, too. Having worked as a backing and harmony vocalist with so many artists over the years, Hogan has a big group of talented friends. She invited them to send her songs for the disc, and they gladly complied. Luminaries from Stephin Merritt to Robyn Hitchcock, John Wesley Harding to Vic Chesnutt, and many more supplied perfect vessels for Hogan’s vocals.

The disc is very much her show, however. As the arranger and co-producer, she is clearly in charge of the vision and crafts a nearly flawless album.  While the overall sound is country-tinged indie pop, certainly her most familiar territory, she sustains the sense of adventure and whimsy that have marked her career and collaborations. Things kick off strong with the tasty Dusty Groove, fittingly a song about music as a lifestyle.

We Can’t Have Nice Things is one of the best tracks Hogan has ever recorded, a passionate whisper of pain that demonstrates her vocal mastery. In an “Everybody’s Got Talent” era of armchair belters, clear proof that a powerful vocal needn’t channel the worst of Mariah Carey is truly welcome. The song is an inspiration of beautiful losers and broken dreams. Robyn Hitchcock contributed the title track, a charmingly quirky song about using the darkness in life to remember that there is light out there. With a lovely whistle and slightly off-key moments, it’s one of the best-arranged tracks.

Haunted comes from the pen of frequent collaborator Jon Langford. It’s a rousing song of determination and one of the best fits for Hogan’s delivery. A real surprise comes with Daddy’s Little Girl, in which Hogan channels the ghost of Sinatra. It shouldn’t work, but somehow she captures the essence and phrasing, giving the grandiose (and sometimes valid) bragging a real humanity. Golden is another musical tribute, in this case written by Hogan for longtime friend Neko Case. It’s a touching celebration of why music matters, even if it isn’t “comin’ out of my radio.”

Ways of the World is a neo-gospel torcher from the late Vic Chsenutt, a flawless gothic channel for Hogan to inhabit. Slumber’s Sympathy gets a bit lost in the shuffle, but it’s a charming song. Stephin Merritt’s Plant White Roses is urban country punk with heart and sounds as if he wrote it just for Hogan. John Wesley Harding, another long-time comrade-in-music, provided Sleeper Awake. It’s a charming number from his back catalog that Hogan adapts nicely.

The final trio of songs celebrate a handful of styles that show off Hogan’s experience and quiet power. Green Willow Valley could be an Appalachian traditional tune and has a dramatic, dirgelike power. Whenever You’re Out of My Sight is straight-out torch song, letting Hogan cut loose and prove that she’s got power to spare, when she chooses to wield it fully. Things wrap up with the gospel-tinged Pass On By, a nice live-my-life number to bring things to a rousing close. Kelly Hogan may not release solo albums very often, but if they are always this good, they are more than worth the wait.

FURTHER LISTENING: Because of her many hats and frequent collaborations, Kelly Hogan only has a half-dozen albums to her name (including the two Jody Grind discs). All of them are certainly worthwhile. The first Jody Grind album, One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure, is an absolute delight and the most eclectic collection. Her first solo album, The Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear, has some great songs but is a bit uneven. Her collaboration with Jon Langford’s Pine Valley Cosmonauts, (beneath the country underdog), is the most consistent album before Pain.

Song of the Day, July 31: Funnel of Love by the Jody Grind

JodyGrindFunnelToday’s song is Funnel of Love by the Jody Grind. This wonderful Atlanta group recorded two albums before half the band were killed in a car crash. They were an eclectic bunch, centered on powerful singer Kelly Hogan (who has since launched a wonderful solo career). Named for a recording by jazz pianist Horace Silver, they played jazz, funk, country, pop, and quirky little gems, mixing original songs with spot-on covers.

Funnel of Love appeared on their second disc, Lefty’s Deceiver. It’s a cover of an old Wanda Jackson tune, with Hogan pulling out all the stops to make the most of the lyric. She captures the whirlwind spirit as she sings about how powerless she is in the face of love.

It’s such a crazy, crazy feeling,
I get weak in the knees,
My poor old head is a reelin’,
As I go deep into the funnel of love.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, September 25: (It’s A Mighty Thin Line) Between Love and Hate by Kelly Hogan & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts

Today’s song is (It’s A Mighty Thin Line) Between Love and Hate by Kelly Hogan & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. After the tragic end of her band the Jody Grind, Hogan recorded one solo album in Atlanta before moving to Chicago. She hooked up with the strong alt-country scene there and began playing and recording with a variety of like-minded musicians. Jon Langford — late of the Mekons — had assembled the Pine Valley Cosmonauts to record a Johnny Cash tribute album. Hogan joined the group for a couple of vocal turns on their second album, a Bob Wills tribute. When she began work on her second album, Beneath the Country Underdog, the PVC served as her backing band and received full credit on the recording.

It’s a fun, quirky album, as one might expect from Hogan and Langford. There are a handful of originals (including Hogan’s delightful Crackers Rule) and a nice assortment of covers. Picking strong material has always been a talent of both artists, and they shine in their selections here. The standout is the wonderful Between Love and Hate. It was written by country star Johnny Paycheck and his frequent collaborator Aubrey Mayhew. It’s a great treat-me-right-or-else song and Hogan nails it.

I love you so much
It never entered my mind
You were laughing at me not with me
And you’d leave me behind

I could never take you back again
You know it’s too late
Because it’s a mighty thin line
Between love and hate

Enjoy this wonderful treatment of a powerful song today.

Song of the Day, July 26: We Can’t Have Nice Things by Kelly Hogan

Today’s song is We Can’t Have Nice Things by Kelly Hogan. This woman with an incredible voice has had quite a career. She started with the Jody Grind, a charming outfit from Atlanta; they dissolved tragically when half the band was killed in a car accident. Hogan went on to a sporadic solo career and major stints working with other performers, notably a regular gig doing vocals with Neko Case’s touring band. It’s been over a decade since her last release, and she returns in fine form.

Harvesting songs from her many friends — Robyn Hitchcock, Jon Langford, John Wesley Harding, and many others — she also put together a crack studio band. The result is the strongest and most cohesive album in her impressive career. It’s hard to pick a single standout, but Nice Things is a perfect representation of the whole album. Country-tinged but defying classification, it makes the most of the band and Hogan’s powerful voice. On the surface, it’s a song about a collapsing home, but the layers of the lyrics reveal something more disturbing at the heart of that home.

Welcome to our humble home
We can’t invite you in
Someone’s gone and made a mess
of everything again
Like this coffee table footrest
Where the whiskey glass leaves rings
And I guess we just can’t have nice things.

Perhaps that household can’t, but — thanks to Kelly Hogan — the rest of us can have some very nice things indeed. Enjoy one of them with this great song today.

Song of the Day, September 7: Dirtclod by Kelly Hogan

Today’s song is Dirtclod by Kelly Hogan. Originally recording with the Atlanta band the Jody Grind, Kelly is a remarkable vocalist with a powerful, versatile voice. When half of the band were killed in a car accident, she took some time to regroup and then released her solo debut, The Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear. It’s a great showcase for her singing. This song, my favorite of the bunch was co-written by Hogan, who more frequently covers other writers. It’s a wonderful song of obsession and self-destruction.

But now the only thing I can be sure of
Is that I’d rather have you back tonight
Than ever look myself in the eye again

After the protagonist spends her “last forty dollars” on a cheap hotel room, she ruminates further about her doomed relationship.

I can hear half a dozen prostitutes
Jumping on the beds next door
I think I sold my soul to you
That leaves only these thin walls between me and them

The song is brief but packed with tragic wit. Enjoy this wonderful anthem of love gone wrong today.

Song of the Day, April 28: Walking On A Wire by Richard and Linda Thompson

Today’s song is Walking On A Wire by Richard and Linda Thompson. Taken from their epic 1982 album Shoot Out the Lights (my favorite album of all time), this is an amazing song and a haunting performance. The tension between the Thompsons as their marriage disintegrated permeates all the songs, this one perhaps most of all. Richard revisits the themes of The Great Valerio, recasting them in a more deeply personal and harrowing lyric.

I hand you my ball and chain, you just hand me that same old refrain
I’m walking on a wire, walking on a wire
And I’m fallling

Experience the gripping power of Walking On A Wire today.

P.S. – I heard the wonderful Kelly Hogan perform this live in Atlanta at a Richard Thompson tribute concert. Kelly, if you’re reading this, you really need to record Walking On A Wire. You nailed it.

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