By Ash D
Keller Williams’ 15th studio album, Thief – due out May 25 – is an eclectic all-covers collection that has the one-man band once again teamed up with the Virginia-based husband and wife bluegrass duo, The Keels.
Thief marks the second compilation project for Keller and Larry and Jenny Keel. Their first album, 2006’s Grass, featured a collection of both original songs and some unique takes on classics from the likes of Tom Petty and Pink Floyd.
The notion of putting his own spin on different artists’ work is something that has always been prevalent in Keller's live shows, and for this compilation he sought inspiration from some of the most unlikely sources. From Kris Kristofferson to Amy Winehouse to the Butthole Surfers, the 13-track album reads like an off-the-wall mix tape. But, through their signature twangy, grassed-up sound, Keller & The Keels accomplish the seemingly impossible task of blending it all together.
The album opens with Kris Kristofferson’s “Don’t Cuss the Fiddle,” and you get your first taste of Keller’s smirky sense of irony when you listen to the lyrics, “We're in this gig together so let's settle down and steal each other's songs.” Larry Keel also takes charge of a couple verses in the opening track, and his rough and tumble cowboy voice makes you feel like you should be sitting around a campfire passing around a bottle of Jack.
The second track is a very smooth version of "Uncle Disney,” originally written by Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. The group's organic vocal harmony shines through on this cover, and Larry's fast-paced, precision flat-picking proves this isn't the kind of bluegrass your parents were probably listening to.
Fast-forward to track number five and the trio picks up the pace a bit for their version of "Cold Roses" by Ryan Adams. With Keller leading on the vocals, the song is very much in line with the sound of his own work, but if you're a fan of the original, this version might leave you longing for the steady electric guitar riffs.
"Mountains of the Moon" is a Grateful Dead cover that works pretty well on this album. Although Keller goes a little bit out of his range to keep the tune low and hushed, the song's lullaby effect is soothing and easy on the ears.
The seventh track, "Teen Angst," is a Cracker cover drenched in irony, and it's hard not to crack a smile when you get to the chorus and Keller belts out, "Cause, what the world needs now, is another folk singer, like I need a hole in my head." Keller and Larry play off of each other beautifully in this track and the clean acoustic quality completely overshadows the fact that the lyrics contradict the style.
Unless you were living under a rock in 1997, you probably remember Marcy Playground’s most notable (and possibly only) hit "Sex and Candy." The song's mellowed out vibe had the strange ability to make you feel a little bit dirty just by listening to it, and Keller & The Keels’ version couldn't be more different. The up-beat, playful guitar is a stark contrast to the dark and heavy original, and Keller's attempt to mimic John Wozniak's whispered, breathy voice is a great example of his willingness to branch out of his comfort zone, even if it does come off a little forced.
One track that does seem to stick out is a sped-up, boot stompin' version of Amy Winehouse's breakout hit, "Rehab." Keller has been playing the unlikely cover in his live show for a while now, and although the trio's recorded version sounds a bit more sober than Amy's, the twangy pitch is borderline whiney after the repeated "No, No, No" every other line.
Overall, Thief is a solid showcase of out-of-the-box thinking and musical creativity. Larry and Jenny Keel lend a lot of bluegrass credibility to the album, and Keller's laid-back, barefoot style helps keep a consistent vibe going throughout the whole CD. As an added incentive to pick up a copy of Thief, Keller & the Keels have formed the "Keller On Your Couch" contest, and those who buy the album through the official merchandise store before August 31, 2010 will be entered for a chance to win a private, living room concert for them and 49 of their friends.
Even if you aren't lucky enough to get the group to come to you, Keller will be touring throughout the summer both with The Keels and as a solo act. On May 28 Keller heads to the Bella Madre Music Festival in Geneva, Minnesota, before heading west to Colorado for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival on June 17. Also on the summer lineup for Keller is the Mile High Music Festival, which features some 40 other artists ranging from hip hop to reggae to folk.