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Jon Keller: “Sideman” goes solo
By Ben Larson
Fort Wayne Reader
Guitarist Jon Keller has been a major part of the local music scene for quite some time. He’s been a member of Alabaster Fox, Wooden Satellites, Lee Miles & the Illegitimate Sons, and (sometimes) Thuderhawk. But on Saturday, August 28th, Keller releases his first album as a solo artist, titled Down in a Mirror, and celebrates its release with a show at the Brass Rail with support from Indy’s Thunderhawk & Elsinore, from Illinois.
When I asked him what the impetus was for him to decide to make a solo album, he said “I’ve always wanted to. I remember in middle school I was like ‘I want to start writing songs and put out an album,’ and then that never happened. Then I started writing songs about two years ago, just fooling around. Then I’d go to IPFW and set up all my stuff and record piano in the practice rooms, and then record everything else here. And I started thinking that I could get other people to play drums, and it all just fell together. I guess there’s no real reason why. It was time, and I just wanted to get something out there.”
Just like many other musicians, Keller credits family with getting him started with playing music. “I started playing music because of my brother. He was a few years older than me, and always had guitars around the house, so I’d pick them up and try to learn Smashing Pumpkins and Beatles songs. From there, I played a lot in church, back in Kokomo.” After spending time studying audio recording at a school in Ohio, Keller then moved to Fort Wayne to go to school, met some other local musicians, and started playing around town.
In regards to his experience recording a solo album, after years of playing in bands where he was not the principal songwriter, he said, “it was awesome, but mostly really nerve-wracking. Recording was really fun, because I had never done it before, but then actually playing [those recordings] for people was terrifying.” He’s been getting some great feedback from peers, however, and had this to say about that: “It’s humbling to hear what people have said, because I don’t ever expect them to say anything good about it.”
Down in a Mirror begins with “Funny Face,” an extremely catchy song about trying to make up for past mistakes. It has a great acoustic guitar part, acting as the song’s backbone, with drums, bass and electric guitar sporadically coming in and out, which gives it a textured feeling while the production keeps it sounding a bit on the sparse side. Keller’s singing is breathy and understated, and remains so throughout the album.
“I Can’t Believe” is a much more lush-sounding song, with piano added to the multiple guitar parts, bass, and drums. There’s also a nice guitar solo about half-way through, which seems to be missing from a lot of songwriter-oriented albums.
“Hope & Depression” starts out with some great slide guitar work (Keller is known around town for being a fantastic guitar player), but the upbeat nature of that part gives way to some very melancholy lyrics, where he tells us to “fight your feelings, if you dare.” Actually, the title of this track is quite fitting, with the music and instrumentation providing the hope, and Keller’s lyrics taking on the despair.
“White Tornado” brings back memories of Heatmiser-era Elliot Smith. A mid-tempo rock song with rollicking electric guitar, this is another song where the music sounds upbeat, but the lyrics suggest something darker in the form of anger toward a lover.
“Bottom of the Barrel” is a beautifully depressing song, as evidenced by the lines, “you’d have to scrape the bottom of the barrel just to find me / you’d have to drink to the bottom of the bottle just to want me.” It also has some great 3-part harmony in some of the vocal lines, which combine with the sparse instrumentation to create a neo-folk sound that is really neither neo nor folk.
I should pause here and say that Jon Keller is by no means the kind of guy who sits around all day moping, even though some of his songs may suggest otherwise. “When I’m happy is when I don’t seem to have any motivation to write. I’m not that sad, it’s just that I only happen to feel like writing when I am sad or down.”
“See Something Else” is a song about knowing that the end of a relationship has probably already happened, but not being able to take that final step and walk away. This one has some really great vocal “oohs” and “aahs” behind the instruments and lead vocals that again give Keller’s music great texture, but don’t bog it down by making it too thick or complex.
“Ghosts” gives listeners their first (and only) taste of distorted guitar, and has my single favorite line on the album: “our love is just a bottle away.” This song also has a great guitar solo in the middle, and showcases the reason Keller is known for his guitar playing. It’s not flashy, but every single note is perfect executed, and placed exactly where it should be.
“I Woke Up” is a wonderful song about trying to convince a lover to stay, and the strummed acoustic guitar, with slide in the background, compliment the vocals nicely.
The last track on the album, “Why Can’t I,” is a perfect way to end the album. Starting out with simple piano and light acoustic guitar, the track slowly builds parts until, by the time it ends, you really feel like you actually experienced something emotionally profound. Ending on a plea for forgiveness gives the album a sense that, even though the final track has ended, the story isn’t done, and one will have to wait for Keller’s next album to see where it goes.