Stephen Kellogg - Blunderstone Rookery
Record Label: Fat Sam/Elm City Music
Release Date: June 18, 2013
If Stephen Kellogg doesn't steal your heart in the three minutes of "Lost and Found" then Blunderstone Rookery is probably not the album for you. The album, his first without his backing band The Sixers in over a decade, is arguably his best to date. Whether the added pressure of having only his name on the packaging contributed in any way towards Kellogg reaching beyond himself and pulling out something truly extraordinary is at this point only speculation, but make no mistake about it, Blunderstone Rookery is tremendous in every sense of the word. Nowhere is that more apparent than on "Lost and Found." The song is only three minutes but is as inviting and intimate as a church sanctuary, and fittingly, the song has an almost prayer-like direction. That sense of divine guidance in many ways shades much of the album, although indirectly.
For those wanting something with more weight, "The Brain is a Beautiful Thing," is a marching testament to personal conviction that is equal parts bluesy, bristling and brawny. Never one to compromise or sugarcoat, Kellogg marries shaking hands with soldiers in the Middle East with American's reality TV obsession into an ass-kicking stew of fortitude and conviction that's as much a wake-up call as it is a social diatribe.
Somewhere, Bruce Springsteen is smiling.
A devoted purveyor of warm acoustic rock (read: Jackopierce, early Vertical Horizon, early Edwin McCain), Kellogg channels that genre on "Forgive You, Forgive Me," a clean and unfettered look at contrition that should in many ways be the new American anthem. For a nation brimming with people so quick to criticize and condemn, there's a refreshing and valued quality in a song as simple and effective as "Forgive You, Forgive Me." Always wide-eyed and forward-thinking, Kellogg contemplates his legacy and impact as a father in the backporch folk of "Men and Women."
Steel guitar accentuate the Heatland ballad "Crosses," a mid-tempo hymnal that has a Mellancamp-esque poetry that is equal parts evocative, elegiac and effective. Perhaps what makes Kellogg so darn appealing is that these songs flow effortlessly from him. Never once does he sound like he's straining or forcing or pushing himself to places he shouldn't. It's a trait that seems simple enough but so darn hard to execute. That Kellogg does so, and has for over a decade, is exactly why he's an artist that is far too undervalued.
The stark piano of "I Don't Want to Die On The Road" brings the entire album down to its bare essentials: a traveling musician contemplating his place, his purpose and his mission as a singer-songwriter. Any touring musician (and really what musician does not tour) should embrace this song with open arms and put it on a mixtape to revisit time and time again. Far too many marriages, friendships and lives are lost from the intoxicating allure of a vagabond lifestyle. Perfectly cognizant of that Kellogg attempts to put those fears to rest over a gorgeous bed of strings.
Not one to give way to filler, Kellogg keeps on trucking on the roadhouse rouser "Good Ol' Days," a horn-driven testament to Kellogg's time spent with The Sixers and how fleeting and ephemeral the scrapbooks of memory truly are. Forgive the third Springsteen reference, but whether or not the song was meant to mimic The Boss' ubiquitous "Glory Days," the comparisons feel all too similar.
Not content to let "I Don't Want to Die in the Road" be the only song with weight and gravity, Kellogg spins a placid yarn of a couple contemplating all their mistakes, misgivings and missed chances. Channeling the refreshing candor of Jackson Browne, "Good Red Wine" is about as honest and real as it gets. While the reconciliation at the song's conclusion might be a bit too Nicholas Sparks, it remains a hopeful tonic to anyone who's ever stared down the fateful end of a once promising romance.
Blunderstone Rookery concludes with two brief offerings ("The Best" and "Ingrid's Song") and one utterly exhaustive one ("Thanksgiving"). Of the latter, well, gosh, what is there to say? Opening and closing with 90 seconds of what appears to be a church choir, the song is in many ways a sidebar on an album that never really needed something so vast and expansive. Obviously, "Thanksgiving" is meant to be the center point or else why on Earth is it even in the tracklisting? But gosh, well, hmmm. Sonically, there's little to dislike: gentle piano, easy acoustic guitars, a steady climb towards a bursting crescendo. But was "Thanksgiving" really necessary? Few of Kellogg's songs are ever throwaways and labeling this autobiographical vignette as anything less than that is obviously a disservice but the entire thing just feels oddly timed. Is packing such a giant emotional sucker punch really the right chart to course? At best, could the song be placed at the album's conclusion, or better yet released as a one-off b-side.
On the contrary, the frolicking "The Best" sounds exported straight from Ireland and is concise and pointed. While it may arguably be the album's weakest song, there is at least a brevity and a briskness about it that is worth rewarding. Similarly, the simple homespun authenticity of "Ingrid's Song" is everything one wants in a Kellogg record. Much like "Lost and Found" it says and does more with just a voice and a guitar than most musicians will ever do in a lifetime.
That Blunderstone Rookery is as strong as it is truly is no surprise. Kellogg has been nothing short of awe-inspiring for well over a decade, but on Rookery, he seems to have more of a vision, a clarity, an importance about his life, his music and his songwriting. Far too many musicians will muddle through a career and never write a single song nearly as compelling as much of, if not, all of Blunderstone Rookery. While that is indeed a sad commentary on what passes for music these days, it may perhaps be more of a testament to the brilliance and power of Western Massachusett's answer to Bob Dylan.
Okay, okay, that last statement is probably overzealous hyperbole but really, Kellogg is a musician long overdue for his close-up, and if Blunderstone Rookery isn't the album to do it, than God save the music industry.