Reviewed by Christopher Hollow.
Paul Kelly Presents the Merri Soul Sessions
The way Paul Kelly tells it, he may never release another album featuring just his vocals again. The Velvet Underground had a number of vocalists, the Triffids would swap things around; even the Rolling Stones would always have a song or two from Keith [and Bill when they weren’t looking].
On The Merri Soul Sessions, Kelly has taken up the role of songwriter, curator, overseer, but has stepped aside as the main vocalist. The original idea was to do a soul record, so Kelly drafted in singers able to portray, inhabit and convey his songs. The record plays out like a revue full of strong female vocals.
The Bull sisters – Vika and Linda – have been long-time collaborators. Indeed, the whole concept for the Merri Soul Sessions was inspired by Vika Bull’s live version of the late-’80s single ‘Sweet Guy’ [the first song Kelly penned from a woman’s point-of-view]. Here, it’s not so much a soul rendition as a rock track with Vika’s Etta James-isms getting a full workout. A younger version of Etta comes in the guise of Kira Puru [check the pout she dishes out on the album’s front cover], who takes a light touch to ‘I Don’t Know What I’d Do’.
‘Smells Like Rain’, with vocals from Linda Bull, is full of foreboding and sports the dream-team songwriting combination of Kev Carmody, Dan Sultan and Kelly. It also sets up the rain imagery that flows throughout the record. At first, it’s a threat, by the end it’s a flood.
With her push-me-push-you delivery, Clairy Browne delivers the funkiest track in Kelly’s 30-plus year career with ‘Keep On Coming Back for More.’ The song, with its impressive bass drum hook, is transformed from the version that Kelly and his nephew, Dan, played for the A to Z Recordings and sports the lyric: ‘Like a sick dog licking at his spew, I’m always turning back to you…’
When Kelly does eventually sing a lead vocal, it’s a song – ‘Righteous Woman’ – that could be read as a homage to the record’s featured females, with its talk of ‘laying down the law’. His other vocal showcase is ‘Thank You’, which is more of a nod to The Band’s ‘The Weight,’ with its loping rhythm and staggered chorus.
Recent ARIA-Award winner Dan Sultan co-writes on this album, but his featured vocal is a song written by Kelly and ex-Ferrett Billy Miller. The spritely ‘Don’t Let A Good Thing Go’ ramps up the pop sensibilities and more rain.
The finale – ‘Hasn’t It Rained’ – is an all-in gospel stomper with its Bible-inspired tale of a ‘Captain rolling drunk, singing naked on his bunk.’
The Merri Soul Sessions houses a strong concept, strong performances, but not necessarily Kelly’s strongest songs.