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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1270

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Keller Williams: Laugh
by George Graham

(SCI Fidelity 1011 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/20/2002)

Music critics like to categorize performers, in fact many feel it's their job, helping music fans relate to someone new by comparing their music to something familiar. But for me, it's nice when an artist or group slips through the cracks and makes music that requires a lot of hyphens to describe. Keller Williams is someone whose music defies quick categorization, but whose component stylistic ingredients are pleasingly familiar. He has just released his sixth album called Laugh.

Virginia resident Keller Williams is a largely self-taught guitarist who has a distinctive rhythmic or even percussive sound on his instrument, playing primarily on acoustic guitar. He is also a singer-songwriter who writes lyrics that are not exactly standard thoughtful introspective folkie material -- his words are sometimes humorous or even semi-nonsensical. And to that, he often gets into a jam-band mode with his regular group. He also previously recorded a CD with one of the world's best jam bands, the String Cheese Incident, for whose record label Williams records. Partly on the strength of his association with String Cheese, he has been winning more and more fans. But this new CD features his own band, just a trio with bassist Tye North formerly of the bluegrass jam band Leftover Salmon, and drummer-percussionist Dave Watts.

Together they create a generous CD that covers a fairly broad range, while living up to the implications of the album's name, with music that is often lighthearted, frequently interesting musically, and often surprising danceable. Williams is an appealing vocalist whose tongue-in-cheek lyrics can be delivered in the properly wry manner, and his band is both sympathetic and rather eclectic, especially drummer Watts, whose often plays with brushes, does hand-percussion, and even resorts to mouth percussion sounds to add some variety. Williams has a characteristic style that is heard most frequently on the CD, with a sort of upbeat, driving rather funky beat. But he and the band can do more laid-back material, venture into reggae influence, even get a little jazzy on one track, and veer off into bluegrass on another. There are also three instrumentals, plus a long jam at the end of the CD. While most of the album consists of just the trio, in many cases playing essentially live with no apparent overdubs, there are a few guests, including some horn players and as well as a fiddler and mandolinist appearing as guests. This CD also has some cover tunes from unexpected sources, including Ani DiFranco and the late guitar virtuoso Michael Hedges, whose influence on Williams can sometimes be heard.

Keller Williams says of his writing "It baffles me where my lyrics come from. I suppose it's a blend of imagination and life experience." His whimsical lyrical style and jam-band tendencies are apparent on the opening track Freeker by the Speaker. This rather rhythmically infectious piece features both electric and acoustic guitars. <<>>

One of the sharpest sets of lyrics come on One Hit Wonder, a seemingly light-hearted but nevertheless poison-pen indictment of the music business. <<>>

Williams' biography says that he has toured with the distinctive eight-string jazz-rock fusion guitarist Charlie Hunter. The first of the instrumentals on Laugh, is called Hunting Charlie, and the those familiar with Hunter's music will appreciate the references and tribute paid to Hunter. <<>> Somewhat incongruous is a brass section that because of its lack of a saxophone, hints more of a marching band than a funky horn section. <<>>

The slowest piece on this generally upbeat album is the Michael Hedges cover, a song called Spring Buds. It's interesting that Williams chose this piece when much of Hedges' material is more atmospheric or upbeat. It ends up not being the CD's most memorable track. <<>>

One of the most clever pieces is Bob Rules, a bluegrass-styled romp with lyrics fantasizing about being on a TV game show. <<>>

The Ani DiFranco cover is called Freakshow, about the life among circus people. The accompaniment here is just percussion, making for an interesting effect. <<>>

Perhaps the piece farthest out into left field is the instrumental called God Is My Palm Pilot, a jam that features a bucket of water as percussion, and bassist Tye North doing some pseudo-Tibetan-style throat singing. <<>>

For me the highlight of this clever album is Gallivanting, whose jazzy arrangement provides the accompaniment for lyrics consisting of stanzas of alliteration, arranged alphabetically from A to G. <<>>

The album ends with a 16 minute jam in three parts called Freeker Reprise consisting of part of a live performance of the opening track Freeker by the Speaker, with the percussion provided by mouth. <<>> Which later leads into an extended slide-guitar jam that goes on for much too long. <<>>

Guitarist, singer-songwriter and jam-meister Keller Williams, on his new sixth album, Laugh, which like all its predecessors carries a one-word title, is an enjoyable, and quite entertaining recording marked by tasteful, and frequently impressive musicianship, clever lyrics and a broad stylistic amalgam. Even with a only a three-piece band and Williams on his acoustic guitar, the music can sound much bigger, thanks to the energetic playing of Williams and his band. Williams' strong, rhythmically-driving guitar style recalls that of the late Michael Hedges, and his music can occasionally resemble that of his friends with whom he has recorded in the past, The String Cheese Incident. But the way Williams blends these ingredients gives his music a distinctive sound that is not easy to lump in any pat genre.

Our grade for sonic quality is about an "A minus." In general the recording is well done, with good clarity and not too much studio gimmickry, but the sound is pumped up a bit restricting the dynamic range.

There seems to be a group of artists who combine first-rate instrumentalizing, or jamming, with clever lyrics, including the members of Phish, Col. Bruce Hampton, and going back to Frank Zappa and some of the British groups like Hatfield and the North. Keller Williams continues that line on his new CD, and makes music that's both interesting and fun.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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