Asian-American New England Country with a Dash of Keb’ Mo’
Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and marvel at how Americana-rock-roots-folk and country music can be absorbed so brilliantly by just about anyone in this world.
Kevin So has this music running in his veins. Many of the songs on his album are co-written with others but the songs are rendered with expertise by So. While the first track is basically country-pop, a little sugarcoated, it does have an attractive melody, hook and it’s sung with energy, sincerity and it’s distinctive.
“Parade” opens the album and for most radio listeners this is radio-perfect. However, with track two “June Carter Cash,” Kevin is more country-oriented in a traditional manner. Is it a novelty song? Well, subject-wise it borders on that but Kevin has glued on a tight melody with sharp phrasing and lots of humor which translates into a song that’s saved.
The press release says Keb’Mo’ plays keyboards on this track and Lyle Lovett alumnus Buck Reid’s pedal steel snakes in and around Kevin’s crystal clear vocals. This is easily a country favorite. Kevin does not possess any country twang — he’s not Randy Travis — but that may be a gift. On these songs there is a seriousness in his vocal that keeps it from morphing into novelty music or old-country retro fragility. The video for this Kevin So song is a parody on Bob Dylan’s classic B&W “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It’s a wonderful take-off on the classic 60’s video when Dylan holds up cue cards and poet Allen Ginsburg is off to the side speaking to someone in a city alleyway. Kevin’s hat tip to the original Dylan video is clever and gets four grins and a two handclaps for having balls.
His “June Carter Cash,” is not a country novelty the way “Harper Valley PTA” is – or “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up to Your Nose,” was. There is meat on the bones of Kevin So music. After all, I believe Kevin is just trying to establish himself and he is succeeding.
But wait…more serious country doodlings are coming. Kevin So may be a slender young man but he is no light-weight.
The next song “Five Days In Memphis,” is real-deal Kevin So. For the rest of the album – he asserts himself quite well and it’s all elevated from the more humor filled music. This is genuine country storytelling, excellent music and vocals.
Pedal steel master Buck Reid continues to anchor the creativity embedded in this tune and lends much credibility to the entire showcase. Kevin shines brighter on each song. This could become a country classic in the hands of a more established voice like Willie Nelson…but, that’s not to say Kevin’s version is inferior. Kevin asserts himself with lots of talented strenght. Kevin needs support like Willie Nelson singing his songs and that would help establish Kevin the way Johnny Cash helped establish a singer-songwriter named Kris Kristofferson. Kevin has a winner here.
The title track “Countryside” starts with beautiful piano and a fine Kevin So country voice. As I listened closely I could tell these songs were not written quickly, off the cuff. These are well thought out stories with penetrating melodies and all are well arranged. The musicians on this track are tight and never miss the target. There is no one in country who would dare not take Kevin So seriously. This man knows his oats.
While “Five Days In Memphis,” was genuine country and excellent – “Countryside,” is easily a classic. With a little deeper vocal this music reminds me of Denver’s Tumbleweed label artist Arthur Gee – who had similar songs back in the 70’s that were penetrating. “Love Song 450,” and “Love Song 451,” come to mind and some of his material is actually on You Tube. Kevin continues in this style in his own unqiue modern way. Once again, Buck Reid lends his pedal steel and paints with a broad brush throughout the melody. It renders this song quite a work of musical art. Nothing is overstated, everything is rootsy in a benevolent manner.
“Breakdown,” is an equally compelling tune. I love it.
Kevin never tinkers with cliche or contrivance. There is a nice comfortable creative approach to his songs and this is one of the best examples. From what I hear — Kevin does not prescribe to the commercial recipe of country yet, his work is accessible and consistently attractive. This song is one of the most likeable. A great progression and not heavy handed. Kevin is not performing to prove anything – he knows he has swamp water in his veins, he’s confident that his tales will grip a listener and so far, after a slow start, the quality of this man’s country music begins to sparkle.
Kevin plays piano, organ and acoustic guitar; pedal steel is Buck Reid; Chris Rodriguez (Keith Urban, Shania Twain & Kelly Clarkson) is electric, and acoustic guitars, as well as, mandolin; Joe First provides accordion; Vail Johnson (Kenny G) plucks the bass and Chester Thompson (who worked with Genesis & Frank Zappa) bangs on the skins. There are countless wonderful guest appearances peppered throughout the album and the sound is diverse which makes any country album even more interesting.
Kevin is a Chinese-American singer-songwriter from Boston, MA – and has quite a resume: he opened for Joe Cocker, Billy Bragg, Randy Newman and the terrific guitarist Robben Ford. Kevin has co-written with blues musician Keb’ Mo’ and from what I have seen of Kevin – he looks the country-artist part. And that alone is impeccably cool. I’m in his corner.
Slipping into more of a ballad mood “Why Am I Afraid,” – co-written with the ever-wonderful Keb’ Mo’. This is a beautifully written and recorded song and it adds to the magic that Kevin So pulls from his sleeve and hat.
Kevin has been endorsed by Keb’ Mo’, Willie Nelson, the late Richie Havens, and Billy Bragg – which is all the accolades anyone could wish for in this “musical racket…uh, business” (as Elvis Presley once said).
“Long Way Around,” rings in as an energetic song with clever lyrics married to a catchy melody. With time, and some luck Kevin So has a sound that will become unmistakably his own. His country music approach is not on the same road so many other musicians have travelled. He seems to try to sing with a difference about many subjects that are typical country. He does successfully apply a new spin on the presentation – in his words and in how he arranges each tune.
Kevin can rock also — as he does on “Pouring Rain.” Kevin ignites a little more in a Rocky Burnette style (“Tired of Toein’ the Line”). Easily a commercial hook – Kevin sings this song with generous amounts of icing on the cake. All the pieces come together nicely here.
The Countryside package is also impressive. Designed by John Falco at Falco Media Service – it’s a colorful diecut four page fold out and the version I received also had a bonus — a DVD.
Writing from a more personal stance Kevin’s “Grateful” is a powerful, soulful song that borders on spiritual. This is an exciting song. I never would have thought something like this would find a comfortable spot on a country LP and Kevin So – made it so. Kevin soars vocally on this track and is filled with purity and intensity. Bravo.
The final track proper (there are two bonus tracks on this album) is “Not Worth It.” Yet another, well-thought out, beautifully rendered track. Kevin has a wealth of good stories in his music and this one is a jewel. A great closer for an album as country music seldom treads subject matter such as this with the poignancy that Kevin threads through it. His voice is nowhere near New England-Boston here. He sounds like America’s boy. Yeah…that genuine, that true. This is a relevant message and it’s the kind of song that should be heard by many people including those who are not big country fans. There ARE songwriters out there who are carrying the traditions of Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Paul McCartney, and Hank Williams. One of those would be Kevin So. Doubt it? Just listen to these songs and let them sink in.
The two bonus tracks on this album: “Fruits of My Labor,” takes another sudden turn into a wry styled country area. This one has brass, continues in a soulful margin and Kevin sings a tad higher. Kona Khasu plays bass on this song along with contributions by: Wayne Jones – guitar; Phil Lassiter (currently working with Prince) – toots the trumpet and scribbled the horn arrangement; Tyler Summers – blows the sax. Kevin is in a deep rhythm and blues arena here and he reminds me of Sam Cooke and Al Green – wow, wouldn’t they do a great cover of this Kevin So song. If only…
Well, if Kevin So’s country career ever falters he knows he can pick it all up and start anew with this kind of music. This is effective. It’s so effective even Black radio would enjoy spinning this.
And finally track thirteen — an eight-minute plus track recorded in a single take: “Throwing It All Away,” – a Genesis cover with no overdubs — starts with piano and Kevin’s still in his most soulful and effective gear…almost teetering into Michael Jackson territory and not as an imitation. This is a tune that smolders and at times is on the brink of jazz. With its infectious melody and strong message this could’ve attracted Michael himself.
My closing remark: Kevin states in his interview that his love for country music led him to make this album that he considers his Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Nashville Skyline, Modern Sounds in Country Music by Ray Charles. I think it’s close — but, Kevin So may just have his best material yet to come. The potential is obvious, the talent is there, the craft is polished. As I said earlier, I’m in his corner. I believe his dedication to his work will produce an album even more potent. This is an excellent beginning, but his maturity is to come. With an artist like Keb’ Mo’ guiding him — my belief is that some great(er) songs are still percolating in the Kevin So song book.
The entire album was produced by Kevin So.
Photography: Framed Kevin So image by Eddie Williams & red cap portrait with guitar by Salman Ahmad.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as reference and will be removed on request.
John Apice / No Depression / Written in December 2015