Mountain Music Review Column

Nolan McKelvey & 33 -After the Roses
© Get Onus Stay Onus Music 2005

Nolan McKelvey is a seasoned musician, no doubt about it. He’s performed on the nationally syndicated radio program “World Café,” he recorded with Levon Helm (of The Band) and he’s been in the national spotlight with performances at such venues as the Newport Folk and Telluride Bluegrass Festivals. He’s shared the stage with the likes of Greg Brown, Bela Fleck, Peter Rowan, and Bob Dylan. His list of recordings and awards is extensive.

On After the Roses, a number of Flagstaff’s (Arizona) most renowned musicians sign on under the “33” moniker including Billy Kneebone (Each Other’s Legend, Second Harvest) on guitar, Rand Anderson (Gravy) on pedal steel, dobro, electric guitar and organ, Aaron Tyler (Second Harvest, Arizona State Mandolin Champion) on mandolin, and many others. All this should add up to one thing-a finely tuned, well engineered, and stupendously picked piece of musical wonderment.

So here’s the rub: somehow, it just doesn’t. It isn’t that the songs aren’t good-they are. The lyrics are regularly clever, commonly catchy and habitually meaningful (plus they manage to rhyme quite often, which is nice). The vocals are clear, in key and they nearly always fit the mood of the song. Each individual instrument on each track is played well, without obvious mistakes, and I’ll be damned if I can pick out any single moment of impropriety (actually, I can: the bass line in “Daddy’s Girl”).

So, if every individual piece of this album is basically good, decent and true, then what’s the problem? Well, it lacks in originality, for one. It is part country, part blues, part folk, and part rock & roll…which essentially means that nobody really disagrees with it, but nobody really likes it, either. This album makes fantastic bar-room background noise. For two, while these songs are catchy, they lack character and soul. Finally, this album’s biggest downfall is that it is rhythmically cluttered and lacking in cohesion. It’s as if Nolan McKelvey is Shiva and the various artists that make up “33” are his many arms. Nolan’s left arm doesn’t know what his right arm is doing and neither of them has any clue what the arms above and below them are up to either. Billy Kneebone plays a ripping blues riff, while Rand Anderson is picking out a mournful lick on the pedal steel, while Aaron Tyler lays down a delicate bluegrass mandolin part. All the while Nolan is just trying to be a soulful acoustic guitar-man on his way to a meaningful solo career. In the end, it is Shiva’s arms that destroy him.

But enough with the negativity, dude. There are lots of little shiny-precious-things hidden amongst all this rough. “Sawmill” for example is a song about a wood-cutter in Flagstaff, who loves two things: cutting down trees and drinking whiskey. It is about a guy who loves the town he lives in but has to leave to find work, which all mountain towners can relate to. It is slow and simple and the intro is a fine example of what this album could be: Nolan and his guitar, uncomplicated by dobros and Wurlitzers and electric bass amplifiers.

Likewise, “Sundress” speaks to every mountain town male. It’s the first day of spring and “Julie’s got her sundress on.” Despite the rhythmic confusion involved, this song manages to capture something solid that people can relate to, even if those people are just horny men that live in the mountains, waiting for that first warm and sunny day when all the girls come out with just a little bit of flesh peeking through their clothes.

Bottom line: this album is something akin to a pot luck dinner. Somebody brings tuna hot-dish, that lazy single guy always brings store-bought baked beans, somebody brings grandma’s old-fashioned potato salad, and that vegan girl from down the street brings something ridiculous and complicated like hummus and bean-sprout cabbage-rolls wrapped in tofu. There’s no theme here; it’s not Mexican night or Italian, Sushi or Chinese night, or even Folk or Blues or Bluegrass night. The worst part? You choked down that mediocre cabbage-tofu stuff (read: After the Roses) just to be nice and all night long people were asking you, “Did you try Gina’s cocktail weenies? Oh, they were soooo delicious.” But you missed it, just like Nolan McKelvey & 33 missed it with this album. I can’t, with a clean conscience, recommend that anyone actually pay much money for After the Roses. Maybe you’ll find it in the street someday, or find it in your stocking on Christmas morn’. In the meantime, don’t forget to support your local music scene. I give this record two stars out of five.

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Eric Greene