Record Reviews

Ben Sollee

Album: “Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native”

Grade: A

Take a classically trained cellist with an adventurous spirit and strong feelings for his native Kentucky and what do you get? A brilliant new album that will warm the hearts of those who know and love the Bluegrass State – and just might encourage others to come calling.

On “Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native,” the cellist Ben Sollee blends ancient mountain melodies with stirring lyrics rooted in the state he calls home. Sollee brings other influences to bear – a syncopated African rhythm on the opener, “Carrie Bell,” for example – but the core is all Kentucky.

There’s a lovely ballad about a ship called the Eva Kelley that once hauled coal down the Ohio River and now carries mostly other cargo. It touches lyrically on hard times in the coal business, but with a gentle, understated touch.

In “Pieces of You,” the album’s best song, the only thing identifiably Kentuckian in the lyrics is how Sollee pronounces “hungry” (“hongry”). The song was inspired by a piece of art that blurred the distinction between mementos and trash. But it stands taller on another track of meaning, as a wistful, achy love song about the urge to hang on to the physical remnants of a relationship that has ended.

The song’s Kentucky roots, though absent lyrically, shine through in the melody – sweetly enough that those who love the state might imagine they’re seeing mist on the shoulders of distant mountains.

—Ben Sollee, Associated Press

Paul Kelly

Album: “Life is Fine”

Grade: B+

Paul Kelly, Australia’s national treasure, has gone eclectic in recent releases, unless you consider setting Shakespearian sonnets to music mainstream.

“Life is Fine” returns to familiar territory: sturdy, pop-rock songs from a writer who’s a master of economy and expressiveness. Lovely lines abound: “You’re autumn trees undressing in the month of May,” he sings, a reminder that this came from the Southern Hemisphere. Kelly updates a Roy Orbison song and sets a Langston Hughes poem to music in the title cut.

Vika and Linda Bull shine as singers, and not just backups – Kelly generously gives each a lead in one song (although maybe not too generous, since Vika’s assignment, “My Man’s Got a Cold,” is the album’s one true clunker).

The joyous and playful love songs, “Firewood and Candles” and “Josephina,” shine particularly bright.

David Bauder, Associated Press

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