Published by Skope • December 31, 2019
To say that it isn’t easy to capture the energy of a vintage bluegrass song would be too huge an understatement for any journalist to make, and yet for Irene Kelley, the challenge isn’t too big to undertake (as we learn in her new studio album Benny’s TV Repair ). The imagistic and highly textured tracks, which include the poetry-driven “Bluegrass Radio,” “Anything To Help You Say Goodbye,” “Out Of Arkansas” and “Highway Back To You,” aren’t wrapped in plastic and outfitted with a few pop hooks and a country lyric as so many pseudo-bluegrass crossover discs have been in 2019. Instead of following the trend, Kelley gets downright personal with her words in “Thunderbird,” “Something About A Train Sound” and “Faster Than Angels Could Fly,” somehow finding a rustic harmony to fit every verse she emits. Benny’s TV Repair isn’t without a couple of flaws; it’s short (35 minutes total), a bit thematic in songs like its title track and “Walk With Me Today,” and always adherent to a freewheeling style many would criticize as being too liberal for most audiences, but for every hiccup this tracklist experiences, I discovered just as many countrified charms to make up the slight difference tenfold.
There are some good string jams on Benny’s TV Repair, but most of the content on this record seems more deliberately stylized than it does off the cuff and ready to rock the stage. “Thunderbird” feels almost mathematical, borrowing its signature harmonization from a southern-style Fleetwood Mac song, while “Bluegrass Radio” doesn’t do much to hide just how intricately arranged its melodies are, and in my experience, that kind of detail simply doesn’t come from a fluid studio session between players of different backgrounds – it comes from someone’s heart and devotion to their medium. Make no mistake about it; I’m not saying that Irene Kelley hasn’t given us reason to expect this caliber of composing from her music (her street cred speaks for itself), but I am saying that she’s raised the bar for herself in these eleven songs, with “Thunderbird,” “Faster Than Angels Can Fly” and “Out Of Arkansas” being the most profound among them from where I sit.
The chiming strings and uniquely soft vocals of Benny’s TV Repair are reason enough to pick up the new Irene Kelley LP, and if it’s something a bit deeper that you’re in search of, it’s got that angle covered as well. Experimentalism is a major component of this record, but as much as I would say that its music is more directed towards the youthful side of bluegrass than it is the old guard’s stringent technique, I think it’s got a certain charisma that will win over many from both camps the same. Where Kelley is exploring her depth as a songwriter in Benny’s TV Repair, a lot of her contemporaries are doing the exact opposite in digging through the past, looking for some sort of magical inspiration that hasn’t already been exploited. It’s my own personal opinion, but I think the road she’s chosen will be a lot more promising in the long run.