Artist: Paul Kelly & Charlie Owen
Album: Death’s Dateless Night
Label: Cooking Vinyl
Release Date: 10/07/2016
Iconic Australian singer/songwriter, Paul Kelly, has become prolific lately with interesting concepts that demand our attention. On this release, he goes beyond that; he commands our attention. Maybe it’s the familiarity of the material or the stripped-down nature of the recording that beautifully frames Kelly’s vocals. Nonetheless, this one resonates emotionally. I’ll get to the remarkable theme here shortly, but for reference, realize that Kelly released a seven-song mini album, Seven Sonnets & A Song, featuring Shakespeare’s love sonnets just a few months ago. Late last year, he teamed with Crowded House’s Neil Finn for a double disc live album, Goin’ Your Way. Not long before that, he collaborated with several female vocalists for Paul Kelly Presents the Merri Soul Sessions. Not only does he make records, Kelly devises rather unique concepts.
This one came about because of a funeral. Kelly explains, “Charlie and I had talked over the years about making a record together, but had never got around to it. Driving to a friend’s funeral last year and discussing the songs we’d played at other such occasions, separately and together, finally gave us our frame.” Despite a couple of Kelly originals, the album has mostly cover tunes that were indirectly chosen for them. “It’s interesting to look at the kinds of songs people request at funerals. They’re not always sad, of course. They tend towards the philosophical, wide and deep in scope,” says Kelly.
Charlie Owen is a multi-instrumentalist playing piano, Dobro, guitar, lap steel and synthesizer, while Kelly handles the vocals, harmonica and acoustic guitar. Kelly’s two daughters, Memphis and Maddy, provide harmonies on some of the tunes. There’s a warm, comfortable vibe that pervades the album, in direct contrast to the cold title. They begin with Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,’’ with Paul on vocals and Charlie on piano. Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is To Fly” follows, with Charlie on both Dobro and piano with Paul on guitar. These two, like most, are basically straight-ahead interpretations, but the sparse musical accompaniment and Kelly’s rich vocals work wonderfully.
“Nukkanya” and “Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air” are the two Kelly originals, both from his previous albums. Other notable tracks are Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In,” with Charlie on lap steel and the Kelly daughters on harmony; a straight cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire,” wherein they offer the original lyrics heard on Cohen’s Songs from a Room. “Let It Be” features the female harmonies again, with Owen on synthesizer. They close with Hank Williams’ “Angel of Death,” a direct reference to death like the earlier track, “Pallet on the Floor”. Generally I’m not overly enthusiastic about cover projects, but this one has my ears. Kelly admits that he had so much fun making this record that he’s considering a sequel. Why not? Let’s give more life to funerals.