Lennon & McCartney, Hank Williams, Cole Porter, Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen and Stephen Foster are among the songwriters represented on this CD due October 7
MELBOURNE, Australia (Press Release) — Some albums are inspired by love. Others are created out of heartbreak. Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen’s first-ever collaboration, Death’s Dateless Night, came about because of a funeral. As Kelly relates, “Charlie and I had talked over the years about making a record together but had never got around to it. Driving to a friend’s funeral last year and discussing the songs we’d played at other such occasions, separately and together, finally gave us our frame.”
This disc’s dozen tunes come mainly from others; however, unlike most covers projects, Kelly and Owen didn’t really pick their selections — they were chosen for them. “It’s interesting to look at the kinds of songs people request at funerals,” Kelly reveals. “They’re not always sad, of course. They tend towards the philosophical, wide and deep in scope.”
This eclectic, and thoroughly compelling, set of songs mixes well-known tunes (the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” and Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is to Fly”) with some standards (“Pallet on the Floor,” Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” and Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In”) and songs from Kelly and Owen’s homeland (L.J. Hill’s “Pretty Bird Tree” and Maurice Frawley’s “Good Things”). The one tune that the two did pick to include is the closing number, “Angel of Death.” Kelly views this haunting song, which Hank Williams recorded in his Luke the Drifter persona, “as a coda to the rest of the record, a kind of commentary.”
The music on Death’s Dateless Night certainly holds a strong emotional resonance. Kelly and Owen keep the arrangements spare befitting the album’s reflective mood. Owen’s deft handling of a variety of instruments (electric guitar, dobro, lap steel, synthesizer and piano) provides a soothing setting for Kelly’s warm, soulful vocals. The duo gives a suitable solemnity to “Bird on a Wire” and “Hard Times,” while “Don’t Fence Me In” offers some lightness and Kelly’s near a-cappella rendition of the traditional Irish song of farewell “The Parting Glass” rivals the classic version by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
The album happily doesn’t totally exclude songs penned by Kelly, who is regarded as one of Australia’s finest songwriters. “Nukkanya,” which means “see ya” in the Aboriginal language Narrandjeri, comes from his first solo album, 1994’s Wanted Man; however, he originally composed it, somewhat coincidentally, for a play entitled Funerals and Circuses. His other tune here, “Meet Me in the Middle of the Air,” appeared on his 2005 bluegrass CD Foggy Highway, although Kelly acknowledges that its words are inspired by Psalm 23, which is frequently recited at funerals.
Death’s Dateless Night continues Kelly’s recent interest in making albums that are more than just a group of tunes. Earlier this year, he released the seven-song mini-album Seven Sonnets & A Song, on which he re-worked a septet of William Shakespeare’s love sonnets into songs. Prior to that, he collaborated with several female vocalists for Paul Kelly Presents the Merri Soul Sessions and teamed up with Crowded House’s Neil Finn for a tour and its subsequent live two-CD set, Goin’ Your Way. Kelly’s 2011 release Spring and Fall presents the arc of a relationship from beginning to end, while 2007’s Stolen Apples is a religious-themed song cycle. Kelly’s grandest musical venture (so far), however, has been his “A-Z” project. It began back in 2004, when he did a series of shows in which he performed his song catalog in alphabetical order. After doing several “A-Z” tours, he released an eight-CD, 105-song box set, The A-Z Recordings, that Darren Wang hailed in Paste as “a transparency into the craft of songwriting that is unsurpassed in pop music today.”
A living music legend in his native country, Kelly has garnered an impressive number of honors there, including six Country Music Association of Australia (CMAA) awards, ten Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Music Awards and the 1997 induction into ARIA’s Hall of Fame. His memoir How to Make Gravy shared “Biography of the Year” honors at the 2011 Australian Book Industry Awards and the audio version features such great Australian actors asCate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Judy Davis and Hugh Jackman. Kelly has been the subject of a documentary (Paul Kelly: Stories of Me) and two tribute albums (Women at the Well and Before Too Long), and was honored with an all-star concert saluting his 30 years as a recording artist.
It was in the late 1980s that Paul Kelly first burst onto the American music scene with a trio of terrific albums on A&M Records: Gossip, Under the Sun and So Much Water So Close to Home. Critics piled up the accolades, particularly noting the intelligence of his lyrics. Rolling Stone’s David Fricke has called Kelly “one of the finest songwriters I have ever heard, Australian or otherwise.” Starting with these records, Kelly quickly developed a devoted U.S. following that continued with his ’90s solo outings — Comedy, Wanted Man and Deeper Water — straight through to his recent releases.
Charlie Owen probably is best known in America as the subject of Kelly’s tune “Charlie Owen’s Slide Guide,” which appeared on his 1998 Words & Music album. Owen, however, is an established presence in the Australian music scene. The versatile, sought-after guitarist has played in a number of groups, including a stint with the Divinyls. His band Tendrils earned an ARIA Best Alternative album nomination while his rootsier trio Tex, Don & Charlie was shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize in 2005.
While Death’s Dateless Night is the first album Owen and Kelly have made together, their partnership started on an earlier project. The two organized a tribute album honoring the popular Australian musician Maurice Frawley after he passed away from cancer in 2009. Both Owen and Kelly had played in bands with Frawley, although not at the same time. The three-disc Long Gone Whistle served to raise funds for the music program established by Frawley at Rochester Secondary College.
It is quite fitting then that Kelly and Owen included the Frawley tune “Good Thing” on Death’s Dateless Night. Given the duo’s deeply personal reasons behind making this album, it also makes sense that the CD’s only guests are Kelly’s sister Mary Jo and his daughters Memphis and Maddy. While funerals served as the origins for Death’s Dateless Night, the music is far more life-affirming than maudlin. In fact, Kelly admits that the album was such a pleasure to make that he is already thinking about a sequel.