By: Bill Clifford
The critical plaudits continue to roll in for Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers. A touring stalwart ten years in, the New England-based trio has yet to receive the radio airplay that its music so fervently deserves. However, The Bear (released September 8 on Vanguard), the sixth CD credited to Stephen Kellogg and The Sixers (SK6ers), has been showered with praise, such as "… The Bear is an attention-grabbing, self-assured set" (Slant Magazine); "The Bear is easily their best album to date" (mog.com); and "Kellogg has made his masterpiece" (bullz-eye.com).
The praise is well deserved, as The Bear is an infectious set of roots rock and Americana that tugs at the heartstrings and lifts the soul. It's a very personal recording for Kellogg, where the songs progress chronologically, spanning adolescence to middle age. But the personal reflections are universal, honest stories of the highs and lows of life and the human condition that many experience at one point or another, and as such, will resonate with a large audience.
Kellogg states his thesis up front on the opening title cut: "Sometimes you get the bear/ Sometimes the bear gets you/ Sometimes you're gonna win/ And sometimes you're gonna lose/ But you know in the end, there's no apologies." It's a fun, two-minute stripped-down, country-blues jaunt that sounds like it was done in one take, sans the polished production of the rest of the CD.
Credit is due to producers Tom Schick and Sam Kassirer for bringing out the best vocal performances yet from Kellogg, particularly "A (With Love)." He's known to have a nasal twang, but on The Bear he sounds clear voiced and on pitch. The country tone remains musically on "A (With Love)," as steel guitars lead in the empathetic tale of severed family ties, and then getting support from where you'd least expect it in the face of teenage pregnancy. It's a sweet, melodic toe-tapper, despite the mature themes.
With a bevy of handclaps, a choir of voices on the sing-a-long chorus, and buoyant power pop chords, the first single, "Shady Esperanto and the Young Hearts," is a jovial a pop single. Too bad they don't play songs like this on the radio anymore. Kellogg is joined on vocals by Canadian siren Serena Ryder on the lovely ballad "See Yourself." Elegant trumpet provides a lift to the somber yet beautifully sung "Dying Wish of a Teenager." Harmonica, organ and steel guitars provide a lush backing to the melancholy, heartfelt rumination, "My Old Man." A jovial chorus of vocals, sunshiny piano and acoustic guitar undercut the somber lyrical break-up tone of "Do." Musically at least, it is another upbeat, catchy pop nugget that would succeed at radio if given the chance.
The standout track is the seven-minute heartbreaker, "Maybeline." Beautiful and elegant piano, swells of Hammond organ and gorgeous acoustic guitar combine with brushed snare percussion as the canvas for Kellogg's vivid lyrics: "I was empty of a feeling/ Not a momma could love me /If I was a shooting star/ I was just ash and gas debris/ A voodoo doll with so many pins, there was nothing left to stick/ And out of that abyss, became a real light so thin." Musically it builds to a crushing, bluesy crescendo of organ and guitars and a chorus of voices singing in praise. CD closer "Born in the Spring" is a lovely string laced ballad that brings Kellogg's thesis full circle: "Through all the what fors, the flames and trap doors through which all of us fell, the stories that I can not tell."
Truth be told, there isn't a bad cut on the entire CD. The Bear is one that you can listen through without hitting the skip button once, and it gets better with each repeat listen. Kellogg sounds as though he's found his adult voice, both figuratively in his sweet, dulcet tones, and lyrically in his mature songwriting. Kellogg's singing is stunningly heartfelt and beautiful, and the music is simply gorgeous. Add my praise to the critical plaudits in favor of Kellogg and the Sixers. The Bear is an absolute magnum opus that everyone should own a copy of.
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