From the first few bars of Ann Kelly’s new EP, Petals and Thorns, you know you’re dealing with professionals here. This slick, six-song package features Kelly’s expressive vocals supported by top-flight playing from a group of L.A. studio stalwarts. All in all, this pop-jazz/adult-contemporary outing is a testament to the value of musicos who know what the hell they’re doing.
The CD’s lyrical themes of love lost, love soon to be lost, lost love’s revenge and loneliness are confidently and credibly handled by Kelly, whose voice and phrasing bring to mind a deeper Diana Krall. From her dusky, blue-smoke delivery of the bluesy “She Dances Alone,” to the I’m-wise-to-you-buster vibe of “Who do You Think You’re Foolin’?” to the snarky irony of the infectious, up-tempo “It Must be Good to be King,” Kelly’s performances strike the right notes of assertiveness, playfulness and hurt — a femme fatale undermined by a vulnerable heart.
My favorite cut, the Exotica-tinged “Between the Lines,” is Kelly and band at their mood-setting best. Kelly’s laid-back phrasing and honest, intimate delivery gives the listener a near-voyeuristic glimpse into a doomed affair. Perhaps, more than on any other cut, this mid-tempo gem is where the players demonstrate their top-notch recording chops. In lesser hands, two guitars, a tenor sax and keyboard all trying to lend color could easily sound like an explosion at a pawnshop. But here, guitarists Tim Pierce’s and Tim Kobza’s exquisitely light and echoed fills and Duane Eddy-esqe twang seamlessly compliment and play off of pianist Mark Ross’ elegant, jazzy runs and saxist Danny Pelfrey’s nuanced flavorings, which blossom after the second chorus into a beautifully lyrical and thoughtful solo.
Another standout, the jazzy “Undone Without You,” has Kelly shredding the boundaries of cool. Playful, yearning and above all, sexy, Kelly’s plea to an AWOL lover has an alluring Peggy Lee-meets-Garbo (on the low notes) quality to it that begs the question, who in his right mind would leave? Complete with walking double-bass, octave guitar, libidinous saxophone and what may go down in history as the coolest, most understated piano riffing ever, “Undone Without You” is as fun as it is supremely musical.
If there is a problem with Petals and Thorns, it’s the record’s tendency toward sameness on repeated listening. Of course, one listener’s sameness is another listener’s consistency of sound, but personally, on the next Ann Kelly effort I’d like to hear Kelly open up her higher register a bit more and maybe add more variation to the design and instrumentation of the production.
But, all picking of nits aside — this EP is a thoroughly rewarding listen. With strong, catchy tunes written by Kelly and Ross, Ross’ crisp, uncluttered production and arrangements, and standout performances by pros who obviously still love music, Petals and Thorns is a collection of well conceived and extremely well executed songs that should get lots of radio action. A solid first outing from L.A.’s Ann Kelly.
Hear samples of Petals and Thorns at www.annkellymusic.com.