Though she first made her impact on the music scene in Georgia in the ’90s, first as the golden voice of the star-crossed Jody Grind and then as a member of the Rock*A*Teens, Kelly Hogan has been Chicago’s sweetheart for more than a decade now, perhaps the brightest star in this city’s roots-rock/alt-country firmament. Yet whether she never quite found her ideal vehicle (and no disrespect to her jazzy cabaret experiments with Scott Ligon), or she just was overshadowed as she selflessly subsumed her considerable talents and expansive personality backing the likes of Jakob Dylan, Mavis Staples, the Drive-By Truckers and most of all her pal Neko Case, she never won the widespread attention she so richly deserved.
“I wanted to be loved by the world,” Hogan coos at one point on her debut for Anti- Records. With the stellar I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, she gives ample reason why the world needs to reciprocate—and she gives us a masterpiece.
As if her new role as a label mate of Tom Waits, Joe Henry and Kate Bush wasn’t impressive enough, or we wouldn’t have been sufficiently wowed by a backing band that includes Booker T. Jones, James Gadson (Beck) and Gabe Roth (the Dap-Kings), Anti- enabled Hogan to tap a mind-boggling list of songwriters who stepped forward to give her their tunes, ranging from John Wesley Harding and Stephin Merritt to Andrew Bird and Robyn Hitchcock.
Though I’d heard that some impressive names had contributed to this disc, I trashed the press release that came with my advance and purposely avoided looking up the credits on the Net, the better to listen to the album as an album—Hogan’s album, and no one else’s. It is, and I don’t believe this exercise alone led to that conclusion.
Whether it’s pulling off the unlikely feat of channeling a boozy Frank Sinatra as he makes a late-night confession about his boundless ambition and subsequent neglect as Nancy’s dad (“Daddy’s Little Girl,” written by M. Ward), turning what might have been surrealism and sarcasm into probing self-analysis (in the title track, by Hitchcock) or flipping the script on a rollicking kiss-off tune and injecting unexpected soul into a bar-band sing-along (Jon Langford’s “Haunted”), Hogan not only shows her vocal power and diversity, swinging from giddy ’60s girl-group pop to weepy old-school country and from sultry soul to gritty rock, she proves that her biggest strength is in the lost art of interpretation, finding deeper and sometimes unexpected meanings in the tunes she sings, and making us feel every note.
Kelly Hogan, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (Anti-)
Rating on the four-star scale: Four stars.