The Green Pajamas – Ten White Stones

The Green Pajamas
Ten White Stones

In their 20 years of existence under songwriter Jeff Kelly’s leadership, Seattle’s Green Pajamas have released numerous albums, singles, and cassettes for a wide variety of teeny tiny labels, eager for any chance to document Kelly’s prolific muse. Along the way they’ve built a reputation in critical circles as the go-to group for authentic psychedelia tinged pop along the lines of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd or Love, with contemporary soulmates such as the Bevis Frond and Robyn Hitchcock.

Though Kelly is lauded most often for his sharp pop sense and the often gritty, under-produced sound, his most consistent and strongest attribute are his lyrics, not only because of their simple, effective poetry, but because of the almost obsessive attention to the narcotic lure of the female. “Well, duh” I hear you say. Sure, take away sex from pop music and all you’re left with is Schoolhouse Rock and maybe They Might Be Giants, so what’s so special about the Green Pajamas’ lyrical bailiwick?

What’s special is that Kelly’s expressions of desire draw from a larger and deeper well than most artists, capturing the haunted moods an overpowering yearning can inspire. The lust, the betrayal, the jealousy are touched on, all without pettiness, bitterness, or hackneyed moon-in-june tropes. His words are wise in their refusal to turn from the pain that love/lust will inevitably bring, even embracing it in a somewhat perverse sense, with a romantic sweep redolent of the Victorian Era novelists he is so keen on, such as the Bronte sisters, graciously accepting the grief one must in order to drink from that well, to truly know physical and emotional fulfillment. As far as I am concerned, his only equals are Leonard Cohen and – to a somewhat lesser extent – Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout. Wow, I was getting kinda horny until I had to type the phrase “Prefab Sprout”.

None of which tells you a damn thing about Ten White Stones and how it fares in the Pajamas catalogue. Well, honestly, it’s not bad, though it gets a little tiring by the end. As a whole, the Green Pajamas are less compelling than their most fervent admirers would have you believe, at least melodically. Jeff Kelly is a fine tunesmith, but his material can become a little too plain at times, and he is burdened with a reedy voice that lacks interpretive power. He resurrects a few older numbers for this disc, while the others are previously unrecorded songs from his vast canon. The live-in-studio production is a definite plus, however, as it benefits from the presence of a full band, which is sometimes lacking on older Green Pajama releases.

Among the reprised numbers is “She’s Still Bewitching Me,” originally on 2000’s Seven Fathoms Down and Falling and one of Kelly’s best. Here the mood is a just a bit more rueful as he sings of “a ghost twenty-seven years away / you’re still the measure of the pain and the pleasure today.” That’s minor Kelly, but it still captures something of epic loss and one man’s commitment to explore the boundaries of his emotional tolerance in its wake. Of the previously unreleased stuff, “Gazelle” stands out, a slow burning meditation on yet another manifestation of Kelly’s haunted mojo. Ten White Stones also contains two songs from other PJ members and a Hank Williams cover, each superfluous.

Though the band insists Ten White Stones isn’t a stopgap between proper albums, it pretty much is just that, albeit a worthwhile one. Newcomers would be best to start off with 98’s All Clues Lead to Megan’s Bed (great title!) or Seven Fathoms…, but really any record you can dig up is worth it.

Jeff Kelly has important things to say about very adult issues, issues that are often easy to address but hard to truly capture in words. The Green Pajamas succeed in doing that, against a tapestry of seemingly inexhaustible creativity. There’s far too much to discover in their work for them to be merely the shiny bauble of cultists and obscurantists, and so many places to start.