Kevin Welch,
Beneath My Wheels
(Dead Reckoning Records, 1999)

So where has this guy been all my life? From the first few measures of the first track on this album, "Everybody's Gotta Walk," I was hooked: raw, gutty guitar in the left channel, fiery rhythm shooting out from the right. The lyrics and structure of the song are similar to Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody," one of my favorites from his born-again period, but it's got its own sound -- Kevin Welch's sound. It's a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll (as the saying goes), a little bit folk and a little bit blues that make up a whole lot of great music.

The good sounds keep coming with "Anne Lise Please," and in this one I'm reminded of Bruce Springsteen, and his pleas to his girl to come on with him and leave all these fools behind. Welch even sings "Cover me" in the chorus. But he proves himself a totally original poet of the road with such lines as "They keep talking about my drinking / They don't care nothing about my thirst," and "Nobody sees except by their own lights." Unpretentious pieces of truth drop like rain in this song. Even the title proves Welch's gift for language: "Anne Lise Please," in which both words of the name are given two syllables each, makes for a mellifluous sound, like honey in the mouth. It also shows Welch's musical unpredictability. Instead of fading away, the song ends with an unexpected, sustained tone.

"Hill Country Girl" is a strong and straight-ahead rocker, but even here Welch seems to have larger themes in mind, as a sense of territoriality creeps in between the singer and his girl. Welch uses equally simple words and structure with "Fold Your Wings," but different layers of meaning pulse through with such lines as: "Only surrender can set you free / Fold your wings and fall with me." The theme of surrendering to love is present, but the darker sense of co-dependency lurks as well.

"Beneath My Wheels" accomplishes what so many songwriters try to do by creating a modern myth of a narrator who makes a deal for his soul, maybe with the devil, maybe with the world. It's a powerful song full of haunting images. Equally potent is "Bastard Nation," a chiller about emotional emptiness made even more primal by the modal structure of the music.

There's a wealth of great lines in "Every Little Lie." Here we see again Welch's great strength as a lyricist: writing simple lyrics that somehow carry great weight. It's a rich gift, evinced by lines like: "Telling a lie is like / Getting a rock in your shoe / Keeping it a secret's like / Walking with a rock in your shoe / Till every little step you take is just killing you." It's a twelve-bar blues lyric that Son House or Robert Johnson would have been proud to have written, simple but fresh metaphors that make you wonder why no one came up with them earlier. "Five Million One Thousand Miles" is a wonderful change of pace -- just Welch and an acoustic guitar creating the quintessential trucker's (or traveler's) song: "Five million one thousand miles from my home / Can't tell me much about being alone."

We're back to the hardest of rock with "Full Moon Over Christiania," a heavy, slamming, dark, dense wall of sound about dead love: "What you get is what you see / You never saw that much in me." The next song, "Shores of Stone," starts out with sustained and eerie tones that effectively depict an empty landscape of water and stone into which the narrator has steered himself: "The stars that I followed / All led me true / 'Til I changed direction / And started following you."

"Faith Comes Later" is a great rocker with more great lyrics: "...your days all walk beside you ... your nights lay down with you...." Sorry to keep quoting these songs, but the words bore into you, and the music to which Welch sets them is ideal. The final song, "While I Was Loving You," is a medium tempo rocker, and a perfect way to end this album filled with so much experience, pain, and earned wisdom. But don't push "Eject" yet -- there's a final aural collage that starts with what sounds like a pencil writing, followed by vaguely menacing music, rain, wind, a clock striking 12, and the pencil scratching away again, ending with a climactic, underlining stroke proclaiming that the writer is finished, for now at least.

But there will be more albums from Kevin Welch, and while I'm waiting for them I plan to acquaint myself with his earlier work. His lyrics burn, his music rocks. His deep, slightly raspy, but highly melodic voice is the perfect instrument for his songs. There's no bullshit here, no pretension, no artiness -- just good, solid music and lyrics by the best singer-songwriter to come down the road in a long long time. Beneath My Wheels is the best album I have heard in 1999.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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