Photography by Hapless Guitar Photography, Article by Tim McLaughlin
Jeff Kelly in studio.
First off, if you don’t know Jeff Kelly please get out from under your rock.
Here is a little background on Jeff Kelly, loves three things:
1. His dog Moose
2. Playing music
3. Flannel…………..he LOVES flannel.
But seriously, Kelly has been playing for a few years and in that time he has won the 2014 Irvington Folk Festival Songwriting Competition, 2015 semi-finalist at Birdies Battle Royale, and a finalist at One Voice, One Guitar in 2015
Kelly put out his first record, a solo debut EP titled, “My Fair Share” in December 2014.
This is Jeff Kelly’s first full length (self-produced) record with a full band, plus a little extra, by his side.
Kelly was nice enough to invite me into the studio to document the tracking of two songs and see Jeff Kelly and the Graveyard Shift in recording mode. While watching Kelly in the studio during the recording session, he appeared to be relaxed as he seemed to have had a big portion of what he wanted on the tracks already planned. It was also cool to see the artist, all of them really, put together an album. Thanks Jeff.
Here’s a clip from that process:
Since his debut release in 2014 Kelly has developed relationships with some of the city’s best musicians and used those relationships to put together quite a lineup. Kelly had the rhythm guitar/ banjo/ harmonica, and he brought in the Graveyard Shift which consists of Charlie Ballantine/ guitar, Philip Sloan/ bass and Kevin Hood/ drums. This formed the core of the band but then he brought in a few more folks to bring another layer to the mix with Mina Kehone on vocals/ keys/ accordion, Kyra Waltz / vocals, Amy Nash/ vocals and Kelsey Arntzen on violin/ cello.
Well there you have it, the performers on the record. You know the ones you’ll see on stage, but you can’t forget those who helped bring it all together. To bring these songs to their ultimate conclusion. Those working on it behind the scenes were Recording Engineer Casey Goodspeed, Ryan Gibbons on the Mix, and Mastered by Ryan Koch.
Kevin Hood in the studio.
Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you Jeff Kelly and the Graveyard Shift.
“Built That Way” kicks off this set of 12 songs in one of the more straight forward form. The nucleus of the band is heard through the thump of Philip Sloan on bass and Kevin Hood working his drum set with some of the loudest play on the record. This track also is a good introduction to Ballantine’s solo work with a nice dose of fuzz.
Track two, “Blizzard,” is where you are introduced to one of Kelly’s signature lyrical styles with a kind of sing/ talk vibe and the verse resolves with an out-of-breath surrender feeling. This along with the lyrics “Blizzard” give youth felling of someone looking out the window with the snow coming down and the frustration that there’s no way to stop it. This tracks also features Kyra Waltz and her sultry voice lending another layer in the background. Arntzen’s drawing her bow slowly across the cello’s strings gives the song a felling of calm / reservation.
“Butcher” is a bit of a head scratcher, and the most Bob Dylan-Isa song on this record in its similarity to the “Death of Emmett Till,” almost like reading a story in the newspaper and then hearing a synopsis. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a knock on the song necessarily, but it feels almost out-of-place. This song is almost a cappella as there is no drum or bass, but with Amy Nash harmonizing to Kelly’s vocal works to fill the space. The genius of the track is a unique combination of Kehone on accordion and Arntzen on cello.
“Rich Man for a Day” describes in great detail about a troubled, down on his luck guy who after exhausting his options thought a convenience store robbery was a good option. “Landlord is asking for last months rent/ its kind of hard to make it when you don’t make a decent wage.” “Need to find some money to put my mind at easy/ be a rich man for a day.” This kind of sentiment can be put in the context of living in the big city, or in the case if this songwriter, the fields and prairie of the Midwest / Central Indiana. One of the last lines in the song provides some sobering imagery “surrounded by three walls and bars,” should not be lost on ANYONE. This is one of the two, more rock-like songs on the record and one of the few that showcase the guitar chops of both Kelly and Ballantine.
If I were to make a video for any track on this record it would be this one. It has is all the protagonist’s current situation, his plan, a great solo for the montage and the end result’s imagery. Look I’m not saying it’s not “Living on a Prayer” or “18 and Life,” but maybe a short using the story from the movie “The Town.” A reference both Kelly and I can relate to.
The montage song, every album has it and on this record it is “Dim Your Arms” On every record there is a “movie montage song,” queue up South Park’s “MONTAGE.” Although I wouldn’t say that Jeff Kelly has a high register when it comes to vocals, he has an amazing growl to evoke an emotion that cuts to the quick. This song does a good job of telling you how one deals with being new to a town, and how hard it can be to get a foot hold in new surroundings. It’s the way in which one almost has to will themselves to make it work. “this town is going to eat me alive/ or this town is going to keep me alive” followed soon after with “home is always on the back of my mind.” This is the type of song that works for many of those in the arts community, especially in Indiana, who are not originally from here. It’s like an adult version of a kid writing his folks a letter from camp.
“Ghost” clocks in at five minutes and is a simple two guitars and Arntzen on cello, and the somewhat cryptic lyrics make it a good way to mark the halfway point on the album. Once again, Kelly keeps it simple and doesn’t try to overpower with effects, instrumentation or over producing. I think also shows the relationship that Kelly and Ryan Gibbons, on the mix, have to keep the song simple.
“Lead In My Veins” starts out with Hood, Sloan and Kelly playing an anthem-like guitar lick before kicking off the vocals. The lyrics seem to play and almost back and forth of opposites with a refrain of “200 things that I ain’t.” This refrain with the chorus of “strip me down to the lead in my veins,” although a curios line provides you with some cool imagery. This is a short track on the record, but with the punch of the rhythm section makes is a very memorable track.
“My Fair Share” is a holdover, as it is the title track from Kelly’s EP release in 2014. It is a wonderful remix that works in the context of a full band plus the inclusion of Kehone on keys. Ballantine’s selection on this record can’t be emphasized too much as his minimalist style and the absence of effects lets Kelly’s lyrics and vocals take the lead.
“Farmer’s Son” If I were to group songs together this would be in the same category as “Butcher.” This song could have easily been called “Fisherman’s Son” as there is even a reference to the sea in the second verse, and an almost third person feel. The chorus and the bridge have some the most orchestral moments on the record, wiith Arntzen’s violin playing at it’s finest.
“Alive” Starts with Kelly picking on his sponsors’ Stonebridge Guitars, and Charlie Ballantine playing the guitar with lap steel sound. Amy Nash shows up again on this track harmonizing with Kelly on vocals through most of the song. Kelly and Ballantine’s playing is not the call and response of a blues player but the minimalist feeling suits the song very well. So too is Mina Kehone on keys and Kelsey Arntzen’s playing there to only serve the song. There is no solo of any instrument on this track which keeps with most of Kelly’s songs.
Then there’s the “River Song.” This choice to conclude the recording is the best perfect, PERIOD. Sorry, I got a little Sean Spicer there. This track is far and away my favorite track on this or any Jeff Kelly record. It isn’t rock n roll, or blues but man is it haunting. Kelly’s tortured lyrics and growl, although present on other tracks plays well on this much faster paced song. Ballantine’s bluesy walk down brings a dark/ frenetic energy to match the tone of the lyrics. “I went down the river to cleanse my sin/ old man in a collar with a crooked ol’ grin/ said God’s gonna save you/ you dive right in / said I don’t want my hair wet/ so the hell with it.” Look, I’m not saying this is Bono’s “I threw the dice / when they pierced his side/ but I’ve seen love conquer the great divide,” from “When Love Comes to Town,” but it might be the Hoosier version. This song is heavy not only in it’s lyrical imagery or guitar work, but the work from Kehone on keys brings (although not front and center) exactly what is needed.
A little blurb from one of the men behind the curtain;
“As an overall statement the performances and tonalities captured by all of the artists during the recording process were really solid. The goal mixing the record was to maintain the organic feel of the songs and to not over-reach in post production. It didn’t take terribly long to get the individual performances to sound good, the bulk of the time was spent trying to understand the goal of each composition and put each part in its ideal spot in the mix. We spent a good deal of time on the vocals, having them sit just right in each composition. After that it was a level here, a pan there, a fade here. This record was a lot of fun to work on and I believe everyone was pleased with the results.”
This is a really good disc and deserves your time. It is work horses, like Jeff Kelly, who help to make this community grow. His willingness to collaborate with others is what I think attracts me to his work, as others see the potential in collaborating with him. Go see this guy live!
A special thanks to Jeff Kelly for letting me sit in on the recording of this album.
Casey Goodspeed working behind the scenes.