Stephen Kelly – Under The Moon : Album Review

Sounds of summer from the melody mines of central south west Scotland.

Release Date: 9th June 2023

Label: self-released

Format: CD / digital

A first release that has aroused more interest than many debuts, Kelly is an affable Blantyre native who has fought long and hard for this, his debut release, the journey thus far including a serious road traffic accident, leaving him deaf in his right ear. Unbedogged, he has persevered, his gift for Beatles-esque melodies undimmed, at last able to give fruition to this record. That he has the presence of premier Scottish strings supremo, Seonaid Aitken, and her string quartet, on hand to swell out his tunes can do no harm and does a lot of good. This was initially on my catch-up pile, the repeated listenings suddenly screaming it a place all by itself.

Opening with the title track, it is a triumphant jangle, awash with strings, with a backbeat resplendent with electric piano. His vocal is strong and passionate, this is powerpop with a capital P. Lazy Way Back is a more straight ahead rocker, backing vocals building into an ELO/Beach Boys melange, the lead vocal remaining a light and lively tonic. Little touches add a studio recognition of where George Martin was aiming with his boys back then. The producer here is actually Derk O’Neill, who has worked with Fence Collective associates such as King Creosote, James Yorkston and Rick Redbeard. He also plays the bass and the keyboards. Tears Run Dry then picks up on the deep seam of soulful songwriting that runs through the central belt of Scotland, this reminding me of Gallagher and Lyle at their best. You wait for a Jimmy Jewel sax solo, instead getting Aitken’s sweeping strings. A gorgeous song.

I Don’t Mind is one of those plaintive minor chord laments, that tugs deep on the ear, worming into consciousness and, likely, unconsciousness. This guy has hit some stride. The meat and potatoes of the band hits all the right stops, provided by Peter Lyons and Stephen Summers, guitars, and Don Wilson on drums. This is further shown for the 4:4 swagger of Dragging Me Under, another pure pop song that could have come from almost any time over the last forty or fifty years. Like a slightly less knowing Lightning Seeds, these are well-constructed songs and played with panache. One of the guitarists is beginning to stretch out on these last two, it making for an agreeable noise, the realisation then sinking in that this is actually Kelly’s work, too. Then, mindful, or trying to be, of the need for pacing, Only Dreaming lightens it up, a little, with a tinkling guitar line, and a dreamy early period Lennon-like reverie. The chorus is then just perfect for a lighters aloft sway, a twangy guitar carrying the middle eight. Alice Allen’s cello provides some catch all cleaning up at the lower register, between guitars and bass.

Long Way From Heaven has the sort of piano intro that myriad performers know and rely on, from Elton to any of the aforementioned. A slightly over-sweetened string motif is perhaps the overly dominant theme here; I’d like this one stripped right back, perhaps just voice and keyboard. Still, given the players and the arrangement, one has to concede it is very well done. With little let up, Tangled Up With You is a melodic thrash, the chord progression again evoking a past fondly remembered. The kitchen sink production is still dialled up to 11, beating out any denial from naysayers by sheer relentlessness. Is this now some respite, with Whisper You This Song? Well, sort of, if not really, reverb now drenching the vocal over another of those piano chord constructions that only ever end well. The strings are now spot on, inhabiting that space between essential and extraordinary, with the added bonus of seeming to extend forever, in a coda that ends as shockingly as it does suddenly. Which only leaves the afterthought of Lost In The Clouds, Kelly and his guitar, with some added studio crackle to add the deceit this is an old vinyl recording, it fading slowly into the distance. A conceit, sure, but one that works after the studio sheen of the rest of this album, timelessly tasty songs buffed up to a sparkle that can’t fail but endear.

Try this for belated size, the force majeure of Whisper You This Song:

Stephen Kelly online: website / facebook / Instagram

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