by John M. Borack
There are plenty of under-the-radar singer/songwriters who should/could be enjoying mainstream success, and Kelley Ryan – who has been flying under said radar under the nom-de-disc astroPuppees for well over a decade – is one of the more talented ones. Twist, the first disc released under her own name, is a striking collection of tunes that pulls the listener in with lyrical honesty, beautiful imagery and Ryan’s magnificent, sweet voice, which conveys sadness, loss, playfulness and sexiness in equal doses.
“I had this idea: the record was only going to be about girls, be it the daughter I never had, a heroine of my mine, my grandmother or a woman who lived near me in Ireland,” says Kelley. “It’s all from the feminine perspective. Even in the music – there’s no electric guitars, it’s just acoustic and loops and strings. I mean, I love three-minute electric-guitar pop songs, but I wanted to create something more comfortable for me and stay in that mood.”
Rather than sounding samey or downbeat, Twist is a sparkling and varied collection, thanks in part to Don Dixon’s spacious production, which puts Ryan’s voice out in front of the guitars and Jim Brock’s creative percussion. Dixon also contributes to Twist as a bassist, and his wife Marti Jones adds her lovely vocals to the mix on a number of the songs (including the ‘60s pop homage “Key to My Heart,” which she wrote with Ryan, and the uber-hooky “About a Girl,” which Ryan and Jones co-penned with Dixon). In addition, the legendary Van Dyke Parks provides gorgeous, tasteful string arrangements to two of the songs.
Twist glides easily from the winking sassiness of “Monkey with a Flashlight” and soft ‘n’ sweet numbers such as “Fly Julie” and “The Lady’s Daughter” to lyrically tart ditties such as “Bleeding a Girl” and the humorous, reggae-tinged “The Speaks.” Also among the dozen songs are a spare, haunting take of Beck’s “Lost Cause,” which, like all the other tunes, is lifted into the stratosphere by the pure emotion of Ryan’s voice. Simply amazing. www.kelleyryan.net
I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I wanted to give a shout out to Maxi Dunn and her excellent debut record, Welcome to Soonville. The UK-based songstress recorded the 14-track effort with first-class production and instrumental assistance from Peter Hackett and the team of Roque Esteban and Coke Belda (aka Spanish popsters Cokeroque), with Dunn handling the lead vocals and the bulk of the backing vocals as well.
The songs are across-the-board memorable – personal standouts are the gently swaying “Seattle in the Sun,” the punchy, harder rocking “Pull You Down” and the atmospheric title track, an epic kiss off to a failed relationship. Most of the songs on Soonville seem to be about the endless push and pull of relationships, with Dunn putting them across with a voice that’s alternately sexy, soulful and charming. And unlike some of her contemporaries, Dunn is by no means mining a retro sound; many of the tunes on Soonville sound as if they could be radio hits (remember those?) in 2011 and aren’t beholden to any decade, particularly the hypnotic, regret-tinged “The Last to Know” and the bouncy, sunny “Always Be My Friend.”
Since Soonville, Dunn has busied herself recording a new album titled The Neglected Gambit, which is due for release any day now. She has also released a few non-LP tracks on iTunes – including a dark-yet-catchy little number called “Why” and the awkward and strained “(To Your Music) I Dance Alone” – and provides sweet vocals to a slightly maudlin collaboration with singer/songwriter Laurie Biagini called “In the Eyes of a Little Girl,” which is most notable for its borrowing of the main piano figure from the Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina.”
The tracks I’ve heard from the upcoming Gambit, however, are more than encouraging: a sweetly girlish number called “Baby, It’s So Wonderful” is sure to be a highlight, and the churning title track that rocks harder than anything on Soonville is also quite swell. You can find out more about The Neglected Gambit, Welcome to Soonville and the talented Maxi Dunn at her website: www.maxidunn.info.