There is a moment about halfway through I Like To Keep Myself In Pain, the title track of Kelly Hogans terrific new album, that will put your jaw on the floor if youre paying attention. Somewhere between a scream and a moan, its a from-the-depths howl that perfectly evokes the nuances of something that Hurts So Good in 10 easy seconds. Except theres nothing easy about it.
Thats a hard part to pull off, too, Hogan says, calling from behind the wheel on the way to her next tour stop. It goes from ah to oh, so Im changing the vowel while holding the note. But its also one of my favorite things to do, even if I always get scared right before I get to that part.
The harder something is to sing, the better Hogan likes it. Thats one reason why the Atlanta native has acquired a reputation as a singers singer over the past decade, the go-to backup vocalist for everybody from Drive-By Truckers to Mavis Staples. One of her regular gigs is backing up Neko Case, who shes touring with this summer in a double-duty capacity opening act, then headline-set backup singer. Its a demanding regimen, and not just because of the summertime heat.
Im thinking of getting a surgical mask like you see people wear in airports, or maybe wearing a sign: Im sorry, I love you, but I cannot talk to you, Hogan says. Its gonna be tough, like doing a run of Cats or something. Ill be missing out on a lot of drunken backstage good times because Ive got to sleep, especially the way I perform. Anytime Im singing, Im never just singing. Like youre driving while on the phone, you hang up and wonder, Howd I get 20 miles down the road? No, anytime Im singing, Im in the song, hearing the words and living them every time. Its why I get so danged exhausted. But the more terrifying and wrenching, the more I get off on it.
Hogans main onstage order of business will be to show off Pain, her first album in more than a decade and easily her best ever. Featuring a stellar backup band centered around the great keyboardist Booker T. Jones, Pain has a late-night salon feel perfect for drowning sorrows. Hogan comes across as a sort of left-field Adele. Not that she sounds anything like the much-lauded young British star, but Hogan shows a similar sense of command over both her voice and her vision.
The 13 songs on Pain were written by underground stars from Hogans roots-rock orbit, including Andrew Bird, John Wesley Harding, Robyn Hitchcock and Mekons/Waco Brothers main man Jon Langford. Hogan makes each and every song her own with vocal performances ranging from powerhouse to whispered restraint. Every song on the album is wholly, thoroughly convincing.
But thats nothing new for Hogan, who always gives herself to every song completely. That even goes for some of her odder vocal jobs over the years, like commercial jingles.
I did this Suave shampoo annual meeting where I went in singing: You dont own me /Dont tell me what shampoo to buy, she says, laughing at the memory. I did a song about unwed mothers in Atlanta, and another about dialysis: Stick to your plan, keep your health in mind. Stuff like that is just the purest ninja assignment. I love that kind of thing, where you have to stick to a feeling no matter how ridiculous. Its a challenge. Oh yeah? Bring it on, I can do it. The harder it is, the better I like it.
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