Mike Keneally Band


Guitarist, keyboard player, composer and singer, the forty-something Mike Keneally is one of the most brilliant realities (but - alas! - also one of the best well-kept secrets) in the current US panorama, one of the few contemporaries who can talk in the present tense in a language that we can still call "rock music" (albeit loosely), still experimenting, still taking risks. A musician who never wears his independence like a badge of honour - it surfaces in everything he does - Keneally has always maintained a coherent, albeit ever-changing, musical route: loving the results, not caring much for the (financial) consequences, always open to new stuff (he's an omnivorous listener). He has also refused some of the easy choices that life had handed to him, for instance: "former FZ sideman" (as a career), "guitar hero", composer for movies and TV, "metallurgist for Mensa". Keneally has chosen to follow his personal muse, the most recent episode being the recording of The Universe Will Provide by the Metropole Orkest, an album that's finally about to be released.

Keneally fans know the whole story, starting from his still valid first album, hat. (1993), which already offered his sense of humour, his impressive technical skills, a personal and already mature composing style, and a smorgasbord of styles; there are also Boil That Dust Speck ('94), his dark second album; The Mistakes ('95), with Henry Kaiser, Prairie Prince and Andy West (a fantastic rock album - rock as I would always like it to be), the excellent Sluggo! ('97), the most realized work of that period and the one I'd suggest as a first step to the uninitiated. Then Nonkertompf ('99), an instrumental album where pictorial atmospheres dominated; Dancing (2000), which successfully translated his personal vision into a group performance; and Wooden Smoke (2001), mostly acoustic, mostly solo, mostly quiet moods.

Taking into consideration the fact that in his records the line-ups have changed quite frequently, I think I can say that it has taken me a certain amount of listening to get his albums. Here I'll only mention Boil That Dust Speck, which totally lacked the ample doses of humour which had characterized his previous effort, hat.; or Dancing, whereas a large instrumental ensemble tried to match their instrumental pronunciation to the material (or was it the other way round?). On paper, Dog was meant to be Keneally's "rock quartet" album. Of course, the excellent bass player Bryan Beller has been Keneally's right hand man for quite some time now, guitar player Rick Musallam was called to fill a lot more space than in the past, while this was the first time on record for very good drummer Nick D'Virgilio.

I have no problem admitting that this album proved to be a lot more difficult to get than I had anticipated, and not for the kind of reasons that are commonly defined as "musical reasons", but for the concept that appears to be at the reason for the recorded sound and the proportions and spatial dimensions chosen at the mixing stage (of course, it's still musical reasons we are talking about, right?). After many listening sessions, I think I finally got this album's aesthetical dimension. Still, I can't say I'm left fully convinced.

I was totally caught by surprise by the confused and vociferous sound dimension of Louie, and my puzzlement only grew when I heard that the whole album was so drenched in echoes and reverbs as to make the music sound confusing and hard to get, with the drums not clearly audible (and sometimes sounding like garbage cans), the bass sounding now soft now loud, layers of guitars, and vocals at a VERY LOUD volume, absolutely DOMINATING the tracks (and full of reverb). The whole album sounding too compressed, bi-dimensional and flat. After checking that my amplifier was ok, I went to the kitchen to prepare myself a cup of coffee. There, I heard the "sonic realism" of the last track, Panda: like a Stax song played by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. So? I decided to take a breather watching the DVD.

In fact, Dog has been released in two different editions: the regular one, featuring only the audio CD; and the one which adds a nice DVD-V. We get about 30' from a live concert (a nice one); about 30' of the group rehearsing some new songs in the living room; some excerpts from the recording sessions (I liked watching the group work on the brief track called Physics), where you can choose from two different audio tracks: what was originally recorded, or Keneally's overdubbed considerations. The quartet performs admirably, Beller playing parts that are always personal and appropriate to the tracks, Musallam proving himself a musician who's versatile beyond my expectations, D'Virgilio still the excellent drummer I caught live in Holland a few years ago playing in Keneally's "extra large" line-up. Keneally is his usual brilliant self, but the different situations shown here make it possible to catch different sides of his personality.

Back to Dog. Well, my patience finally paid off. Louie, which at first had sounded so off-putting, revealed a lot of subtleties in the vocal dept. that I had totally missed. (A propos of vocals: why are the lyrics not in the CD booklet instead of those pictures? Yes, they can be found on the website, but...) I then found some typical MK climates (Simple Pleasure, Gravity Grab), had pleasure in following the different routes taken by Bober, familiarized myself with Splane, smiled when listening to the aforementioned Physics, hoped in vain I was about to listen to some well-recorded drums (the start of Raining Sound), had fun listening to the instrumental coda (quite à la Gentle Giant) to Choosing To Drown. As I said before, not everything left me fully convinced, for instance the decision to use those very loud vocals makes Pride Is A Sin sound trite and banal. And I found the sound of the whole record to be really fatiguing - I mean: not more so than most music that one can hear on the radio, or some current "electronic music"; and obviously, those who listen to music while doing other stuff won't hear nothing wrong.

The most inscrutable track is the long one titled This Tastes Like A Hotel, where one can hear Gregorian chants, house rhythms, blues guitars, hardcore vocals, orchestral samples - and which at a certain moment reminded me of... Thunderclap Newman? Quite a strange track - and the sound doesn't help. (But would have I liked the whole record to sound like Panda?)

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004

CloudsandClocks.net | July 15, 2004