For her new album, No Stranger, songwriter Bekah Kelso picked up a new band, The Fellas, to help bring her tunes to a full-bodied conclusion.
"It's a new leaf for me, and I'm very into new leaves," Kelso told the Current. "Which is why whatever I do after this will sound nothing like this with any luck."
Her last effort, Within the Shifting Shade, was a glossy and beaming thing, like a portrait under soft box light. For No Stranger, Kelso went with a quick and honest snapshot of a band in the natural light of a practice room.
"We really wanted to try and keep it to what we do live," she said. "Which was an intimidating choice, because when you're listening to it, it's all there and that's all that's there."
Kelso guides the Fellas through a low-key, high-grade album, full of barroom rock 'n' roll and relaxed soul. If Kelso's coffeehouse vocal tone drives the record, the organ provides the horsepower. Behind the keys, Ricky Hernandez is on counterpoint duty, soloing with Kelso's scatting and poking out the chord changes.
For her fourth album, Kelso faced a serious editor's dilemma, having to cut down to album length from a stacked library of songs.
"I was in a song-a-week writing group for the first time in my life," said Kelso. "It was this life-changing experience, because I used to think that writing from a prompt or any sort of guide was contrived. But I could not disagree with my former opinion any more strongly. It's about doing the work to show up for your craft."
After cutting from 50-plus to 11 songs, Kelso picked a name to match the music's bright attitude, even in blue moments.
"I was thinking of something that could capture our motto of Damn Good Vibes, so I thought of a band that's never met a stranger," she said. "There are no strangers here. And some of the tunes, like 'Raven's Song and Devil's Rope' are just weird little songs, real departures from the rest of the album."
Stylistically, there are no strangers on the album either. From reggae rock to glowing folk, Bekah Kelso and the Fellas take the genres rolling around in their heads and clarify them in a darling pan-rock style.
Pianist and songwriter Lucas Jack is not cool, a status that he takes in stride. Since discovering a talent in singing as a teenager, the pianist continued down the upright road of the Piano and Rocket Men.
"I chose to keep doing the piano thing 'cause I was really into Billy Joel," said Jack. "Which was not cool at the time. It's still not cool. Nobody's really doing it, sitting at a piano and singing with a band."
On his official debut Before I Forget, Jack observes the sacraments of his 88-key idols, including honky-tonk descending chords and an emotional outlook both anthemic and exposed. But it's the details that bring the album into a clear and lifelike focus. Jack sings of girls in love with the "tan and risky," lives half-lived "in and out of conditioned air" and a stalled relationship putting in maintenance sex "once a month with our t-shirts on."
"I really wanted to write story songs," said Jack. "It's a challenge for me to tell a story that's personal to me and universal enough so people can talk about the song and what it means. And I think I got that very much from Billy Joel."
Like Bekah Kelso, Lucas Jack is a wordsmith. The attention to detail and clear story arcs don't come from a bang-'em-out, one-man factory line, but a man sitting in front of the screen, turning his collected images into narrative.
"I edit when I write," said Jack. "Editing is art. Some people think if you don't write the song in 10 minutes, then it's not a good song. I don't like predictable lines. If you can guess what the last line of a lyric is, I think people's brains tune out."
Though some of the songs on the album have seen light before, Before You Forget marks Jack's official debut and a major life milestone. A Chicago lawyer in a past life, Jack ditched the briefcase and Lionel Hutz stiffness for a life as a musician (and husband) in SA. With Before You Forget, Jack has found a solid footing in Texas soil from which to jumpstart his career.
$10-$12, 6:30pm Fri, Feb 27, Sam's Burger Joint, 330 E. Grayson, 223-2830, samsburgejoint.com
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