Jim Keller | By No Means | (self-released)
4 out of 5 stars
If Jim Keller’s music sounds like a combination of Los Lobos, the Del Fuegos, Peter Case and Elvis Costello, it may be due to producer Mitchell Froom who has worked with all those acts.
That’s not to minimize the talents of singer/songwriter Keller, whose music has a clear enough connection to Tom Waits’ clattery, bluesy, swampy folk rock for Waits to give a thumbs-up quote in his publicity. But there is a through-line to Froom’s previous clients, especially his work as a member of the Latin Playboys with David Hildago (who handles guitar chords here) for his influence to be reflected in Keller’s easy pulsing music. Hildago also contributed to Keller’s previous 2014 release, so this continues a longtime partnership.
The impressive By No Means is only Keller’s fourth album since his 2009 debut and first in seven years. At just over a half hour with only two tracks breaking three minutes, it’s short too. Regardless, each tune takes just enough time unwinding with a subtle J.J. Cale/Mark Knopfler lope that perfectly frames these melodic slices of swampy folk/rock. It’s an understated, almost hypnotic and at times mildly driving disc featuring rhythms that bubble and boil. Legendary bassist Bob Glaub’s sturdy bottom end intertwines with Michael Urbano’s shuffling drums as Keller’s deep voice talk/sings of travelling through life on “Easy Rider” (Don’t matter where I’m going/Don’t matter where I go) and digs a thumping soulful hole with the ominous music yet humorous lyrics of “Don’t Get Me Started” (The whole damn world is going insane/So don’t get me started).
But just when you think this has found its dark groove, Keller, once the writer of Tommy Tutone’s early ‘80s pop/new wave hit “867-5309,” delivers a sweet lost love song in “Pretending” that would sound perfect blasting from the radio on a sunny summer’s day. There’s a slight country texture to the portentous “Love on the Line” where Keller talks about a relationship tearing at the seams but does it to a simple yet effective sing-along melody. On “Wild Love” Keller seeks to connect with a woman in a song that sounds so much like the late Willy DeVille to make even DeVille’s fans assume this is a lost tune from his catalog.
The music cliché that there are no unnecessary notes surely applies here. Keller sings his song, keeps it tight and moody, then moves to the next one. That’s just the impetus listeners need to push repeat immediately after the last track and hear them over again.
The notes say “recorded in Mitchell’s back yard,” and the homey, organic sound bears that out. Considering the album’s brevity, hopefully there is not only more where this came from, but that Keller, Hildago and Froom reconvene soon for a follow-up.