Single review: ‘Nirvana, If Only,’ Sean Kiely

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“Nirvana, If Only,” by Sean Kiely.

“Nirvana, If Only”
Sean Kiely

From: Jersey City. Here’s a theory, supported by absolutely nothing: The same obstacles that make Hudson County a challenging environment for electric rockers provide a comparative advantage for small acoustic combos. Or ought to. Options are limited for loud rockers in Jersey City —they can try to squeeze the act and the amplifiers into a corner bar, or turn down the volume to accommodate the crowd at a restaurant or gallery. A talented busker, on the other hand, can set up anywhere and entertain anybody. Sean Kiely isn’t a busker, but he makes the kind of music that can fit into tight corners. In so doing, he’s carrying on the Jersey City tradition of flexible, exploratory, quasi-psychedelic folk-rock. About a decade ago, I remember watching Pothole Skinny pile into a living room to do a show. Things around here haven’t changed all that much since then. We still need a reliable, dedicated place to play music, and we’re still minting interesting, idiosyncratic artists who are making the best of what we’ve got.

Format: Seven-inch single.

Genre: You may be one of those anti-democratic individuals who doubts the ambition of Just Plain Folks. I myself have argued that it’s silly to call Joanna Newsom or Laura Marling makers of folk music, considering that they’re about as far removed from ordinary folks as it’s possible to be. Then again, I haven’t met all of the ordinary folks there are, and neither have you. Ordinary folks may have bigger dreams that we think. I still don’t love to apply the term “folk rock” to basic combo-style records made with acoustic instruments, because it leads directly to the Mumford illusion: four-on-the-floor dance music dressed up in antique clothing and decorated with banjos and lutes. That’s not what Sean Kiely does. In its formal restlessness, his version of folk-rock is closer to that of Rah Rah or Rural Alberta Advantage. Actually, the musician Kiely reminds me of the most is Grant Maxwell of the Morning Pages, a Brooklyn-based outfit that handled upright country-rock with the weary dignity of Gram Parsons.

Arrangements and sound: Acoustic guitar and drums, mostly. “Nirvana, If Only” features a fiddle, and “Leave Us Alone” contains a clicking percussion instrument, mixed in the background, that sounds a bit like crickets and a bit like a court stenographer. The A side was cut at a studio that I don’t know anything about: Fidget NYC. Rich DeCiccio, the main man over there, is also the drummer on this session.

What’s this record about? Donovan once sang of a mountain that was, and then wasn’t, and then was again. Mountains, for folk musicians, have always stood for reality and its ever-shifting appreciability — depending on our vantage, we can either comprehend the mountain, glimpse the outline of a slope, or just get lost in the foliage. So when Kiely sings, somewhat dolefully, that he sees the mountain for what it is, he means that he understands the dimensions of the challenges he’s facing. “Nirvana, If Only” is a statement from an explorer painfully aware of the distance between fantasy and the real, and much as he’d love to get lost in his own widescreen imagination, his own knowledge and experience won’t let him. So the Nirvana referenced here is the state of consciousness, not the Seattle band. Sorry, Cobain fanatics. It’s been 20 years, and it’s time we handed it back to the Buddhists.

The singer: Not the prettiest-voiced character ever to sling an acoustic around his neck. Kiely might be from a woodsier part of the country than Jersey City originally, or maybe he’s affecting a backwoods twang; in either case he hits the tape aggressively, and makes his narrator feel believably rustic. His performance on “Leave Us Alone” is gentler, but he still chews many of his vowels and spits some of his consonants, too. None of this is a problem — on both songs, he comes across as a searcher with pointed questions for the forces that govern existence, and you don’t get an answer from those clowns unless you sound like you mean business. I think. His desire to communicate is undercut by his decision to intermittently double-track his voice. This lends the tracks a slightly otherworldly, psychedelic effect, but it throws the storytelling ever so slightly out of focus. Little things, yes, but not inconsequential ones. Something I don’t dig: the falsetto “whoo-hoo” in the chorus is a few miles farther down the dirt road than this city slicker is willing to go.

The music: The drumming on “Nirvana” is folk-rock spare; on the flip-side, the snare beats are practically glacial. Levon Helm, master of staying the hell out of the way, would surely nod his head. Kiely, who is a forceful character, hits his guitar downstrokes hard, and picks pretty firmly, too, but resists the temptation to show off. The wild card is Heather Cole, who starts fiddling at the minute mark of “Nirvana” and doesn’t stop until the end of the track. Sometimes Cole plays in unison with Kiely’s guitar, and sometimes her parts intersect with his at funny angles. The violin takes on the character of a colorful bird that has flown accidentally into an old barn, and flutters and swoops at the windows in search of an exit. Cole’s violin and Kiely’s voice aren’t an obvious match, but they complement each other nicely. He’s the grizzled traveler stumbling through the woods, and she’s the blithe spirit in the trees leading him on.

The songs: The opening verse of “Nirvana, If Only” consists of a repeated pattern of three heavy acoustic guitar chords in sequence, and a vocal melody that makes suggestive eye contact with the six-string but refuses to get cozy with it. The guitar part refuses to follow the melody into modulation. If it sounds a little weird, it’s meant to. Then Kiely throws the listener a life preserver: the same verse is re-done, and the melody and guitar fit together according to folk-rock expectation. Even here, though, there’s a little something kept off-kilter. Kiely finds notes in the chord that create a feeling of indeterminacy, and he sustains that instability for the balance of the song. The chorus, too, is a procession of unusual changes, and by the time DeCicco gets around to anything like a straight beat, the song is half over. Kiely never oversells any of this or calls attention to it, but he’s writing about an unresolved quest, and he matches it with music that’s meant to hang in the air like an interrogative.

What separates this record from others in its genre? Somewhere between the last Incredible String Band and the emergence of the dreaded “freak folk” movement in the mid ’00s, many musicians with acoustic instruments decided that trippiness could best be achieved sonically rather than compositionally. Most of the time, this has meant throwing so much reverb on the vocal signal that the words are rendered unintelligible, which is supposed to be mystic, or just intriguing. But the ear gets inured to odd sounds in a hurry, and yesterday’s psychedelic freakout is tomorrow’s signifier of willful inscrutability. An unexpected chord change or melodic twist might not be as grabby as instruments running out of phase, but it stands a much better chance of keeping a record fresh and interesting on listen No. 3. Or No. 30.

What’s not so good? Several times on “Nirvana, If Only,” Kiely’s narrator refers to himself as “an Elliott.” I have no idea what this means. It might be a shout out to Elliott Smith, or Elliott Gould, or T. S. Eliot, or it might have some personal significance to him. Or there might be an Elliott in popular culture or history that everybody knows about but me. Nevertheless, a song with 16 lines (max) can’t sustain too many head-scratchers.

Recommended? Somebody with lots of dough (and patience with bureaucratic hurdles) really ought to consider opening a Rockwood-style acoustic pop-rock club in Jersey City. The audience exists, and the brick tenements and Bayonne boxes are filled with strummers and piano-pounders desperate for a place to call theirs. Should a club like that ever open, I’d expect Kiely to become a regular. Even if it doesn’t, he is likely to become a fixture at area block parties, art galleries and record stores — he’s got the flexibility to take the act into dangerous alleys, and the aesthetic adventurousness that JC respects. He’s going to be heard in this town.

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