That Kelly girl
October 5, 2001
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Kelly Hogan has one of those voices that can sound good singing the phone book, that can bring a tear to a hardened biker’s eye, that can make a cold Chicago night suddenly seem a heck of a lot warmer, but can leave a frustrated music critic searching for a description that isn’t a cliché before finally giving up in abject defeat.
After earning a strong reputation as a member of crazy-quilt underground favorites the Jody Grind and the gleefully raucous Rock-A-Teens, the Atlanta native moved to Chicago in 1997 and kicked her own career into high gear by linking up with Bloodshot Records. Her second solo album, last year’s "Beneath the Country Underdog," rightfully spotlighted her amazing instrument. But it was a bit too pristine, a little too restrained.
"Because It Feel Good" is a different story. Recorded with former Sugar bassist David Barbe over a two-week span in Athens, Ga., with backing from a talented group of musicians that she lured with promises of her mom’s home cooking and wiffle ball games in the afternoon, Hogan cut loose and let it all fly, and the results are impressive.
"I’m a white lady singer," she says with her usual breathlessness. "I’m Miss Sally on ‘Romper Room,’ and that’s just the way I sound. That’s why I like to get some contrast in the sonic end results. If everything was sugary sweet, you’d just puke your guts up!
"[Chris] Lopez [of the Rock-A-Teens] is always encouraging me to be like, ‘YAAAAAA!’ And I like all the crusty parts on this record, for sure. I was like, ‘Leave this old crabby scab here!’ And ‘Leave this wart here!’ I find that a lot more interesting, a lot more personal. I’m never gonna be and I don’t wanna make some slick Britney Spears-caliber production. I don’t care to listen to that stuff."
A pause. "Well, O.K. It’s fun in the shower some times, but it doesn’t move me. I love the personal nature of, ‘Just leave it in!’" She continues, a runaway freight train of enthusiasm.
"Our version of that Statler Brothers song ["I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You," which kicks off the album] is us learning it. That’s the first time we ever played it together. We had just talked about doing that song and I made tape of it for everybody after we heard it one night driving in the van after a show in Chatanooga. We were driving to my mom’s house at three in the morning and we thought, ‘Let’s do that song, but more as a suicide note rather than an oom-pa, Shakey’s Pizza-type of song.’ So that was us just kind of doing it, and that was exciting. We just did it that one time, and it was like, ‘That’s it, that’s all we need! We don’t want to play it too good!’"
The mix of laidback grit and casual earthiness contributed by the musicians that Hogan invariably calls "my genius men" (guitarist Andy Hopkins, pedal steel player Jon Rauhouse, bassist Mike Sturgess, drummer Mike Bulington, and violinist Andrew Bird) plus her own shiny, sparkling, springier-than-Dusty Springfield vocals is the source of the album’s success, along with an unerring ear for great material.
Reaching back to a pre-’60s Nashville tradition, Hogan considers herself a vocal stylist, not a songwriter ("Bob Dylan messed it up for all of us singers," she cracks). "Because It Feel Good" breaks down to include two co-written Hogan originals (the bold, brassy, Bobby Gentry-inspired "No, Bobby Don’t" and the wickedly funny "Sugarbowl") and eight well-chosen covers. "Andy calls it the Loretta Lynne ratio," the singer says. "He looked at his Loretta Lynne records and told me there were about three originals to eight cover songs per record, so I felt a little better."
Alternative-country purists may cock an eyebrow at unlikely choices such as "Strayed," a song by Bill Callahan of indie-rockers Smog, or "Living Without You," a Randy Newman number that Hogan discovered by way of Harry Nilsson ("I have a crush on all these dead guys, and Harry Nilsson is one of them," she says). But there’s no denying that Hogan makes them work, investing the literate, storyteller details that she loves with boundless emotion, and arbitrary genre boundaries be damned.
"When I told Bloodshot I’d like to make another record, I said, ‘But I’m not sure it’s going to be a quote-unquote ‘Bloodshot’ record,’" Hogan recalls. The Bloodshot folks promptly reminded her that there is no such thing. "It’s like Jon Langford always says, they started out with this little tiny cocktail umbrella of insurgent country, and now it’s like this giant golf umbrella that encompasses all these different sounds, from Alejandro Escovedo to my Bobby Gentry/AM-radio kind of countrypolitan, or country-pop-a-politan, or whatever the heck it is.
"I wasn’t thinking while we were making this record, ‘Is it gonna fit?’ I was just thinking, ‘Does it move me?’ Now people are saying, ‘Oh, it’s such a bummer record.’ Well, yes, but those are my favorite types of songs. And there’s humor there--there’s lots of humor there!"
Witness the aforementioned "Sugarbowl," which finds Hogan crooning, "Hey there Sugarbowl/My little Miss Solid Gold/You were always a lady, just like a lady should be… You were my idea of beauty" before she kicks in with some of the homeliest "mock trumpet" vocal warblings this side of Daniel Johnston. Or her version of "Strayed," which features three (count ’em) simultaneous guitar solos by Hopkins. ("We liked them all separately but we couldn’t decide, so we just put them all on a la Lynyrd Skynyrd," she says.)
Hogan remains one of the busiest women in Chicago, bartending at the Hideout, working as veterinarian’s assistant, guesting on albums by just about anybody who asks ("I’m pretty slutty that way, pretty easy, but I always enjoy a challenge,"), and touring behind her own effort, which is made all the more to difficult by juggling the busy schedules of her musicians.
"Having a band of my own, well, that would be every queen bee’s dream," Hogan says. "But musicians this good--I’m just so happy for them to be playing with me. I can’t be hogging them, plus I can’t pay them what they’re worth. I can’t believe they play with me in the first place. It’s like, ‘Do you wanna tour with me and make absolutely no money?’ ‘O.K., sure!’ Why do they do it? I don’t know. I think it’s my dog."
Augie the dog travels with Hogan wherever she goes, staying in the dressing room during her set, or sometimes camping out onstage inside the big bass drum case. "The drummer keeps an eye on her, and she wears ear plugs," the singer says. "She’s a road pro. Sound check is so boring--she hates it--but she loves the hotel room."
As Hogan sees it, the dog ("our morale officer") and her "genius men" ("They’re so great! I can’t say that often enough!") are the reasons for her success and any attention that comes her way. And that voice? Well maybe, just maybe, that has a little something to do with it, too.