There is much to be said about Americana music as a means by which to reveal an allegory. The true beauty lying therein comes from the narration administered by generations of story-tellers, woven into the accompaniments provided. The path one must take to attain the status of a celebrated raconteur is often wrought with years of relentless touring and can ultimately be joined by misfortunes of substance abuse, strained relationships, and ostracization from the general public. Those few that reach the zenith of a lauded career are either gifted by luck or have a past haunted by the tribulations that give them the voice by which they earned their keep.
While Kansas City singer-songwriter John Velghe may not have many looming skeletons in his closet to speak of, the man has given decades of his life writing and performing for rooms across the country. It would be experiences had during these formative years that provided Velghe the articulation that culminates with an outstanding ensemble on his new LP, Don’t Let Me Stay.
In the first line of album opener “Time Bomb,” Velghe asks in a self-imposed drawl, “Could you blame me if I don’t trust pretty faces?” followed later by a proposal to allow the imagined former lover to whom he speaks the ability to tell a story which he never wants revealed. The basis of the entire song lies in that single sentence, but Velghe’s conversational writing style expands it into a nearly four-minute long piece that gives the listener insight to the direction the album’s sound will be driven. Velghe’s portraiture is given further depth by the voices of Kirsten Paludan, guitarist Mike Alexander and bassist Chris Wagner, whose vocals braid together through the entire album and are strengthened by drummer “Go-Go” Ray Pollard providing the metronome by which the album retains its pace.
“Blood Line” begins with a purposeful false start before picking up to a marching beat of a repetitive snare and kick with a guitar providing the only cushioning. Piece by piece the instruments begin to fill in, and at each new measure another layer is added to the vocals. The sound explodes once the chorus is reached, as we are brought the first noticeable taste of the three-piece horn section from Hermon Mehari, Mike Walker and Sam Hughes. It is at this very moment that Don’t Let Me Stay becomes more than an alt-country or Americana record, and begins to brazenly reveal flashes of the Big Star and Replacements influences that drove Velghe to begin creating music in the first place.
Not to be outdone with a mere nod toward that on which he was reared, the A side is given closure with an acoustic song titled “Iron Skin,” whose echoing haunt immediately conjures thoughts of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” which celebrates its 40th anniversary this very year. Later in the album there is an additional salute to Alex Chilton with “Owe My Soul,” a play on words from Big Star’s “O My Soul.” Velghe sends out one final love letter to the most musically prosperous city in the south with “Austin (you sorta stole my heart).” Austin is a city that has been kind to Velghe in his previous endeavors, to the effect that he is something of a protegé of roots rocker Alejandro Escovedo, and will be playing a SXSW showcase with him this year.
The 12 tracks on Don’t Let Me Stay coil around the intricacies that are possible when the investment into your work comes at a level of detail so concentrated that instruments are removed and added even though the change may be wholly unnoticed by a large number of the listeners. Mike Alexander trades in a guitar for a mandolin on “Stage Inside the Main,” and there also exists the inclusion of James Mitchell, Whitney Williamson and Catherine Root as an understated string section on a handful of tracks. That brings the count to eleven well-versed musicians that lend their talents to the release, creating a patchwork of backgrounds and an amalgam of sounds on an album that would do well to be in any local music fan’s rotation. If Velghe thinks his hands were “meant for telling three-minute lies,” then consider this review an investment in deceit.
By Greg Stitt