Keller Williams' latest studio album, Laugh, is at once an extremely creative endeavor, stretching Keller's boundless talent into new musical areas, and a playful snapshot of musicians in a studio just having a great old time.
The first track, "Freeker by the Speaker," starts by sounding like classic Keller: a melodic riff played on an acoustic guitar with jaw-dropping speed. But a few bars later, when the drums, bass and electric guitar kick in, it hits you. This isn't the one-man jam band you've seen live, showing off his technical guitar skills woven together with an electronic loop machine. Keller's got a band.
Indeed, Keller's sixth studio album finds him joining forces with drummer Dave Watts and bassist Tye North. Watts, a Berklee-educated drummer and longtime member of the Boulder music scene, is known for his work with The Motet, a wildly creative ensemble that mixes funk and jazz grooves with musical colors from Africa, Cuba and Brazil. North, who moved to Boulder from Portland, Oregon, has toured with Leftover Salmon and also plays in Comotion, with luminaries like Darol Anger, Mike Marshall and Michael Kang.
Actually, this isn't the first time Keller has recorded with musicians. 1999's Breathe featured his buddies The String Cheese Incident, and some great guest musicians also pitched in on his earlier records, Buzz in 1996 and Freek in 1994. But by using such accomplished and creative musicians for the whole CD, he is free to take his songs to new places musically.
For example, in "Gallivanting," Keller explores jazz by layering fast scatted lyrics over a walking bass line and some swinging drums. The lyrics - chosen more for sound than meaning - contain clues to the jazzy structure of the song. Each stanza uses words that start with one letter, and they rise in "key" up the scale, from "appetite for applesauce" to "easy elaboration" to "gorgeously gallivanting." The effect is a whole different kind of song.
But there's more than just a clever jazz exercise. The trio also tackles the blues in "Crooked," creates a musical tribute to Charlie Hunter in "Hunting Charlie" and collaborates on the unique instrumentals "Mental Instra" and "God is my Palm Pilot." On that track, they even branch into some electronic house grooves, changing the feel mid-song, with impressive precision and skill.
Aside from all this improvisation, Keller also serves up some of his signature catchy melodies and playful dream-like lyrics in the songs "Alligator Alley" and "Vabeeotchay." Another highlight is "Bob Rules," a hilarious musical story about Keller's dream of appearing on The Price is Right. The song has been a favorite of his live audiences since 1999, but for the studio version it is redone as a bluegrass tune, with Keller's Virginia buddies Danny Knicely on mandolin and Fiddlin' Dave Van Deventer on fiddle.
Keller also pays tribute to some of his favorite songwriters: Ani Difranco's infectious "Freakshow" is performed solo by Keller on djembe and vocals, and he also covers "Spring Buds," a ballad by his guitar hero, the late Michael Hedges. "Spring Buds" showcases Keller's crystal clear tenor, mixing beautifully with the rich tapestry of music and the soaring voice of Lou Gosain, Keller's soundman and backing vocalist, creating harmonies that will give you chills.
Laugh, released February 13, will be followed by a show in Lahaina, Maui, as part of String Cheese's special "Intranational Incidents." Back on the mainland, Keller will be touring throughout the spring, starting in the southeast and looping his way around the country. More details can be found on his home page, KellerWilliams.net. While you're there, be sure to look for the details of the "Make Keller Laugh" contest, which will award an autographed Martin D-8 guitar to whomever can make Keller laugh the hardest. Also enter the JamBase contest for free cds, tickets and backstage passes!
So check out the album, catch a live show, and enter the contest... because laughter is the most beautiful music of all.
JamBase Chicago Correspondent
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