Kelly Hogan – Absolutely torchin’ twang
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” That old saw has been attributed to everyone from Lester Bangs to Martin Mull to Frank Zappa. While it is debatable who originally said it, the veracity of the statement is undeniable. Creating prose which accurately conveys an aural experience is, of course, a music journalist’s primary duty — along with getting artists to eloquently discuss what they do. Interviewing a musician can be like asking an architect to give you dance lessons.
Kelly Hogan knows this. As a former record label publicist, she’s quite familiar with the dilemma of using words to describe music. Sitting on a well-worn couch in her Chicago apartment, Hogan is explaining how she and her guitarist, Andy Hopkins, co-write songs. “The chords I know are like ‘Kumbayah’,” she says. “Then I give the song to Andy, and he makes it ‘Kumba-Say What?’ He puts the crazy chords in it. He puts the curly hair in it. Sometimes I can hear a chord, but I can’t play it because it has a dog-howling note in it,” she says, punctuating her anecdote with an animated delivery of a high-pitched note.
That collaborative process yielded three terrific Hogan/Hopkins compositions on Beneath The Country Underdog, credited to Kelly Hogan & The Pine Valley Cosmonauts and due out in April on Bloodshot Records. The disc’s originals are supplemented with covers of classic country songs from the likes of Freddie Hart (“Easy Loving”) Willie Nelson (“I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone”), and Conway Twitty with Loretta Lynn (“Wild Mountain Berries”).
It’s the best album of Hogan’s career, the only true country disc in the 35-year-old singer’s catalog and the first one to fully capture the power of her transcendent vocal abilities. Hogan’s first solo disc, 1996’s The Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear on Long Play, is well worth seeking out, but it’s a more modest, indie-rock affair.
The new disc was produced by Jon Langford, the ubiquitous artist, cartoonist, writer and musician who fronts the Mekons and the Waco Brothers. Langford and recording engineer Ken Sluiter aimed for a clean, polished sound — not exactly glossy, but much bigger and more technically accomplished than Hogan’s previous work.
Langford also recruited top-notch talent for the project, including Mekons/Wacos drummer Steve Goulding, ex-Bottle Rockets bassist Tom Ray, Grievous Angels pedal steel wizard Jon Rauhouse, and keyboardist Barkley McKay (Mekons, Pretty Things). Making cameos on the disc are Neko Case, Robbie Fulks and John Wesley Harding.
Hogan recounts, “I would say to Ken, ‘Turn that bass down! Turn down this, turn down that!’ Finally, he spun his chair around and said [adopts a dramatic tone], ‘Hogan, I refuse to let you make a lo-fi record.’ I wasn’t used to this donkey-balls-sounding record. I’m used to making a record with one little wiggly, rascally wheel on the wagon,” she says, imitating a squeaking wheel.
Hogan first rose to prominence over a decade ago as singer for the Jody Grind, an Atlanta band that presaged the lounge/exotica/Cocktail Nation movement. The group released two excellent, jazz-influenced discs on DB Records, One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure (1990) and Lefty’s Deceiver (1992). On Easter weekend in 1992, a tragic and excruciatingly sad event put a halt to the band’s career. A drunk driver crashed into the band’s rented van, killing all three people on board: drummer Robert Clayton, bassist Robert Hayes, and Tim Ruttenber, a friend of the band who created performance art under the name Deacon Lunchbox.
After the accident, Hogan and Jody Grind guitarist Bill Taft wrote a batch of songs that eventually wound up on Hogan’s first solo disc. By the time she was ready to enter the studio to record the material, Taft had moved on to other things. Filling in on guitar was Hopkins, the guitarist for Flap, a band that had opened for the Jody Grind on numerous occasions. Hogan logged some time as a member of Atlanta band The Rock*A*Teens before moving to Chicago in 1997. Hopkins also made the move from Atlanta to Chicago, in late 1998.
Since arriving in the Windy City, Hogan has held a variety of jobs, including house painter and publicist for the label that is now her artistic home, Bloodshot. She currently tends bar at the Hideout, one of Chicago’s most intimate and artist-friendly venues. When she’s not behind the bar, Hogan can often be seen performing on the Hideout stage with Hopkins, bassist Kari McGlinnen, and her drummer (and beau) Mike Bulington.
Hogan’s talent has yet to translate into widespread notoriety, partly because it’s been difficult to find her recorded work. DB Records went under in the mid-’90s, eventually licensing the two Jody Grind discs to Ichiban, which reissued them in 1997. But Ichiban subsequently folded as well, as did Long Play, the label that issued Hogan’s solo debut. Her luck may finally be changing with the release of Beneath The Country Underdog on Bloodshot, a modest-sized independent label that, after six years of steady growth, shows strong signs of being around for the long haul.
In addition to the previously mentioned covers on Hogan’s new album, there are also stellar interpretations of works by The Band, Johnny Paycheck, and, most surprisingly, Magnetic Fields. During a visit to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, last summer, Hogan saw Magnetic Fields perform “Papa Was A Rodeo” and was so moved by Stephin Merritt’s tune that she immediately tried to memorize it.
Later, she contacted the band’s label, Merge, to find a copy of the song and to seek permission to record it. Hogan requested a tape of the song, but it never arrived, and soon it was time to go into the studio. She insisted upon recording the song even though she didn’t have a copy of it. Hopkins was particularly dubious of trying to play a song that Hogan had heard live only one time. As fate would have it, however, the song was released in September on the second volume of Magnetic Fields’ critically acclaimed three-disc opus 69 Love Songs. Hogan bought it the day it was released, just in time for her band to learn the song and record it.
The resulting cut — which features a wonderfully warm guest vocal turn from Mike Geier, an old pal from Hogan’s Atlanta days — is the standout track on the album, and actually superior to the original version. Hogan began teaching Hopkins the song from memory. “We built that song up bass-ackwards,” she explains. “That’s why it’s weird, and pushes and pulls a little bit. I got Edith Frost to come in and do the ‘Village of the Damned’ children’s choir backing vocals.”
Hopkins elaborates: “We put that together with Mike Bulington playing a real hip-hop, sampling kind of drum beat. All he was using was a kick, snare, and a high hat, just playing the same basic hip-hop style beat over and over. There’s not a bass guitar on that song, either. I put nylon-string acoustic guitar on it and then played bass notes on an electric guitar with a lot of reverb on it. We just wanted it to be a little different.”
Hogan and Hopkins are both devotees of late ’60s/early ’70s country and soul music, so it makes sense that their originals would have a Dusty Springfield vibe. With its swinging groove and succulent horns, “I Don’t Believe In You” is a new song that sounds right at home alongside the classic covers.
Like the other originals on the album, Hogan penned the lyrics to “I Don’t Believe In You” by herself. “I wrote that song in my mom’s bedroom while watching No Doubt on ‘Saturday Night Live’ with the sound turned down, a long time ago,” she says. “Andy helped me turn it into more of that ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ thing. He helps me take the music and turn it into something more fucked-up. I like stuff with peg legs and glass eyes.”