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Taylor Guitars
On Review
by John D’Agostino
© 2001 Taylor Guitars (reprinted with permission)

Mike Keneally
(Exowax Recordings EX-2405)

I love the "discovery" sequence in listening to a great new album. On the first pass, you have that sense of stumbling into a private sonic vault and absorbing the pleasurable impact of arrayed treasures. The next time through, you follow individual aural glints to examine each detail, until the cumulative tally makes the whole seem even denser and richer than before. Finally, you surrender to the overall effect, and your anticipation of repeat sensations heightens the experience.

If the music has deep focus, you can return again and again without hitting bottom. In the best cases, you’re able to jettison jaded preconceptions and ponder the miraculous nature of music itself. To have that effect, a pop album needn’t be epochal on the order of Sgt. Pepper or Tommy. It just has to be fresh enough to give one a renewed appreciation for the evocative placement of notes and the hallucinatory architecture of sound. Mike Keneally’s new opus, Wooden Smoke, produced that effect for me even in its pre-release form, and now the real thing is here.

I realize that I’m just a molecule in a liquid chorus when I say that Keneally never ceases to amaze me. Okay, to be honest, the amazement paused for a few moments in 1989 when I watched him struggle with chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant in San Diego’s Old Town district. But other than that, it’s been total amazement and fulfillingness’ continuous finale.

The Wooden Smoke project was launched in October 2000 at a San Diego studio. It hurdled a two-month delay in spring 2001 (caused by blink-182’s sessions in the same facility) before racing home in late summer. When I received a plain-wrap, rough-mix advance CD, I hadn’t even completely digested Dancing, Keneally’s prog-pop-boogie banquet of late 2000. As Kenealliacs know, Mike’s music is so thick with ideas that its half-life rivals plutonium; the condensed down-time between these CD releases seemed less a hiatus than an extended segue, and their relative proximity on the Keneally timeline forced a comparison of the two that quickly short-circuited one’s critical lobes.

Dancing is an electric carnival of gnarled prog-pop-fusion-rock (love those hyphenates) featuring Keneally and his eight-piece band, Beer For Dolphins (BFD). Wooden Smoke is a solo album, largely acoustic in structure, with electric windows and flashing, and almost equally divided into instrumental and vocal tracks. That both of these works should emerge from the same brain in a matter of months seems as likely as striking gold and chocolate in the same motherlode. Something’s wrong with Keneally; a long-ago abduction by extraterrestrials might explain how he can be so prolific while successfully serving a variety of muses.

In a blindfold test, the most ardent fan might have difficulty making the connection between Wooden Smoke and Keneally’s previous works — hat, Boil That Dust Speck, Half Alive In Hollywood, Sluggo!, and the avant prankster-rock of The Mistakes, the 1995 album in which Keneally communed with Henry Kaiser, Andy West, and Prairie Prince. Even Keneally’s ear-opening, 1999 one-man-band album, Nonkertompf, was more a spring-cleaning roundup of musical attic toys than a coherent statement. Wooden Smoke is just very different — in conception, in its source material, in execution, and in its effect on the listener — from anything he’s ever done.

In a way, it’s not cool to invoke other artists when praising something original, because the unintended inference is that it’s merely a jumble of influences or even rip-offs. In print, however, such references can create a CliffsNotes mosaic from shared musical memory-bytes, and in this case it might be especially helpful.

There are 14 individual cuts on Wooden Smoke, but the album is more a series of vignettes telling one tale than a string of unrelated creative impulses. The music’s through-line is strong, its mystical mood effortlessly sustained through numerous changes of pace, subject matter, and instrumental texture (aided by recapitulated melodic motives). Its hushed emotionalism and compelling fairy-tale innocence make it a prolonged, whispered prayer fusing the most sublime moments of solo McCartney, solo David Crosby, Future Games-era Fleetwood Mac, Ralph Towner, middle-period Todd Rundgren, Surf’s Up-era Brian Wilson, Debussy, Pentangle, The Point-era Nilsson, Gershwin, Blow by Blow-era Jeff Beck, Robert Fripp, and the pillowed balladry of Gentle Giant keyboardist/composer Kerry Minnear.

Those of you fortunate to have attended one of the Taylor workshops conducted by Keneally and his BFD bassist, Bryan Beller, are well-acquainted with Mike’s acoustic-guitar prowess. You might be surprised, however, to hear picking and strumming patterns on Wooden Smoke that are more rooted in traditional folk and pop. The Alpine melodic shapes and jagged, cut-and-splice meters that characterize unplugged renderings of his post-Zappa electric material have given way to an autodidactic approach more in keeping with solo acoustic guitar music. That’s because much of Wooden Smoke was conceived on acoustic guitar, as Keneally explains on his website:

"At the end of last year, I started playing a whole lot of acoustic guitar, sitting on the floor in the living room. The sound of the instrument and the physical sensation of playing it formed the bedrock of Wooden Smoke (thanks again to Taylor Guitars for making instruments which pull so much music out of a person). It’s not your typical ‘acoustic album’ though — there are a lot of interesting sounds happening, generated in some fairly unorthodox ways."

True. Keneally couldn’t become "mainstream" if he were drowning in it, so while Wooden Smoke might rise from a smoldering, man-with-guitar foundation, he still manages to patch together unique, non-linear pastiches from colorful fabrics. He had help in that regard. Officially, this is a solo Keneally album, and Mike does play most of the instruments (including some glorious piano — the instrument on which he began his musical life at age five). But he enlisted some reliably gifted mates to flesh-out the project. BFD bandmembers Beller, Rick Musallam (guitars, vocals), and Tricia Williams (percussion) make notable contributions, as do multi-instrumentalist Marcelo Radulovich and percussionist Nathan Hubbard (members of the Trummerflora Collective), saxophonist Lee Elderton, drummer Chris G, and vocalist Matt Resnicoff.

The result is a brilliant and absorbing 50 minutes of music. And it does make me ponder: how can a six-note melodic fragment hook you again and again? What is it about certain combinations of notes and chords and rhythms that transports you to far-off places? How is it possible that the same raw materials that in one artist’s hands can splat you like pancake makeup, and in another’s hands can burrow into your psyche and plant notions of grandeur? I don’t have the answers, and I hope I never do.

Wooden Smoke’s embarrassment of riches continues with the most beautiful cover art and packaging of any Keneally effort to date. Just get the dang thing. If you’re like me, you won’t be able to get enough of it.

A special 2-CD edition of Wooden Smoke is slated for release on October 16 and can be pre-ordered now at www.keneally.com. The second disc in the package is called Wooden Smoke Asleep, a sort of stream-of-consciousness reflection on the music that offers a dream-like glimpse inside the creative process, like those extra tracks on a box set or an exploded mechanical diagram (think of an audio The Making of). The first 2000 copies of the 2-CD special edition will be signed and numbered by Keneally himself.

Release of the standard, single-disc retail edition of Wooden Smoke has been delayed until January 15, 2002 to accommodate the worldwide release of Dancing, as well as an orchestral performance of Nonkertompf in Holland this October.

At press time, a downsized version of Beer For Dolphins — Keneally, Beller, Musallam, and Nick D'Virgilio — had just booked a US tour for November. For dates and places, see Keneally’s page in the Clinicians section of our website:

— JD

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