CD Review: Gabriel Kelley – It Don’t Come Easy (Badge, 2012)
Kelley is a singer-songwriter brought full-circle to his rural roots after stops in Sweden, Nashville and Guatemala. Born in Virginia, his taste was seeded by his parents’ music – Leon Russell, Neil Young, John Prine and others. His songwriting sprouted during two years of vagabonding that eventually led to a staff writing position in Nashville. But Music City’s stock liturgy turned out to be too confining: “Nashville was kinda like cowboy hats and belt buckles, and I was more the long-haired granola kid.” He left publishing, spent more time abroad and returned to a vagabonding life that freed him to pour his experience into songs rather than songwriting appointments. What emerged, funded by a Kickstarter campaign, is a fervent, soulful singer-songwriter.
Kelley sings in his own voice, rather than one designed to capture a market segment. He writes invitations to an emotionally closed mate and anchors himself to faith as he sends out lifelines. Ironically, it’s Kelley himself who could often use the lifelines as he wavers between loneliness and forgiveness, rarely finding resolution in either. He wallows deeply in the details of his misery on the closing “Holding Me Down,” and album’s one moment of contentment “See Ya Comin’” is more memory and expectation than here-and-now. The latter features passionate, gospel-infused backing vocals from Bekka Bramlett, Marueen Murphy and Gabe Dixon.
Neal Cappelino’s productions of guitar, drums, keyboards, pedal steel and harmonica are often quite grand, but they’re tethered by Kelley’s earthiness. The rolling guitar figures and strong walking beat of “Only Thing to Do” are supplemented by Wurlitzer piano, a string quartet and sitar-like twangs that come from either Jon Graboff’s pedal steel or Reggie Young’s guitar. The latter provides inspiring musical figures throughout, highlighting Kelley’s songs with dollops of soul, just as he did for the Box Tops and numerous others over the years. This is a sophisticated debut from a songwriter with confidence in his lyrical and singing voices, and a backing band that offers up stirring mixes of country, rock and soul.