If you put on Ann Kelly’s latest CD, “Promises,” close your eyes and imagine what the owner of this rich, sultry voice looks like, your mind will probably conjure up a hi-res image of Kelly by the time you reach the first chorus.
Keep listening and the slinky horn lines, jazzy piano riffs and bluesy guitar under the voice will likely morph your Kelly mind-picture into something closely resembling the CD’s cover art – right down to her trench coat, puckered lips and the urban setting.
Now you’re ready to experience the album as the multimedia event nature intended.
“Promises” is an album of mood music. It’s difficult to put the Kelly mood into words, exactly, but I know it has a lot to do with dry martinis, French perfume, Aston Martins and parties at Hef’s. With Kelly’s sensuous and often fearlessly emotive vocals setting the tone, “Promises” is mood music for grown-ups: urbane, sexy and expertly made.
The six-song, Mark Ross-produced EP opens with the upbeat “These are the Good Times.” Tight, infectious horn lines, a standout solo by guitarist Tim Pierce and Kelly’s light and confident delivery let you know you’re about to spend time with pros.
“Bluest Blue,” Kelly’s “Dear John” to a doomed affair, is the record’s hardest rocking track, featuring a credible, emotional read by Kelly, fiery leads by Pierce and some extremely ballsy and clever horn lines.
The up-tempo shuffle, “Move on Over,” delivers some of the strongest performances — vocal and instrumental — and some of the best lyrical turns on the CD. The song opens with Kelly’s scornful dissection of a gold-digger on the prowl: “…the pretty little parasite is looking for a host,” then passionately warns the host-to-be away from the vixen with …“better beware, there’s perfume in the air.” Kelly’s mix of worldly swagger, impish fun and rhythmic instinct nails this one.
Brandon Fields’ soaring tenor sax solo, Ross’ syncopated piano, playfully inventive horns and top-flight backing vocals by Janis Liebhart and Lynn Fanelli all conspire to make “Move on Over” as fun as it is musically rewarding.
Come to think of it, there is a refreshingly playful spark running through this entire album and everyone involved is obviously in on the grin.
Case in point: Lee Thornburg’s wah-wah trumpet intro (over scratchy needle-on-vinyl effect, no less) on “I’m Your Friend,” is not only a good example of the album’s wit, but is also one of the best bits of flutter-tonguing horn pathos ever blown. When Nick Lane’s trombone joins Thornburg later in the tune for a kind of mano a mano, New Orleans-style horn-orama, its fun is exceeded only by its masterful playing.
In “…Friend,” Kelly tries to extract commitment from a tentative lover with a whispered growl that is so damned sexy, you can’t believe she has to make her case at all. “You love me when it’s easy, when the slipper fits…”, sighs Kelly, then turns up the heat with “…I long for you to comfort me.” If this doesn’t work on the guy, I’m afraid shock therapy is the only answer.
On the slow bluesy title track, “Promises,” Ross’ dramatic string arrangement provides the perfect environment for Kelly’s impassioned vocal and Pierce’s dynamic and thoughtful guitar work throughout.
Which brings us to the final cut – the exquisite and eclectic “If You Only Knew Me.” It’s funny, just the other day I was saying to the wife, “How come nobody ever makes records with a reggae beat, a Montmartre accordion and a Duane Eddy guitar, featuring a Marlene Dietrich-ish vocal in English and French anymore?”
In this medium/slow, incredibly infectious loper, Ross has managed to combine these disparate instrumental elements in a way that feels so natural and easy you have to remind yourself you’re in uncharted territory. As interesting and inspired as this track is, though, it is Kelly’s performance that will stay with you.
One part “Three-Penny Opera,” two parts Piaf-Dietrich love child, this is Kelly’s most evocative read on the album. Purring such lines as “…now we begin the sweet taste of sin” and “…your foolish heart will know that I play for keeps,” in between the tastiest accordion and soprano sax lines this side of La Rive Gauche – well, let’s just say Kelly had me at bonjour.
Kelly’s uninhibited vocal approach, Mark Ross’ crisp production and innovative-yet-catchy arrangements plus ace work by some of the best musicians and singers in Los Angeles have demonstrated once again that having fun and making good music needn’t be mutually exclusive endeavors.
“Promises,” L.A.-based Ann Kelly’s sophomore effort, has just the right blend of fun, drama and musical expertise to recommend it as a highly enjoyable listen.
For samples of “Promises,” visit http://www.annkellymusic.com/store
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