Jeff Kelly – For the Swan in the Hallway

Jeff Kelly
For the Swan in the Hallway

The bedroom is a very intimate place in our society. In movies and books, the most dramatic character development or internal struggle often occurs within the bedroom; it’s when the protagonist is totally alone, comfortable with his own presence – that is to say, it is when he acts most true to who he really is. John Lennon and Yoko Ono turned their bedroom, signifying their innermost feelings, outwards in protest; the Supreme Court decided that whatever happens in the bedroom is nobody else’s business, not even that of a court not uncomfortable with prying into others’ lives – it’s clear that the bedroom has been elevated to the level of archetypal symbol for private thought and contemplation.

It seems to me that Jeff Kelly, the man behind the Green Pajamas, would be one to write music in his bedroom, dressed only in his boxers and a dirty pair of socks. He sings of characters he finds in his books, bringing them alive to dance for him on the end of his bed. But this image may also explain something else about his music; it’s not hard to imagine Kelly digging around in his old records and listening to the hooks over and over again, then walking the few feet to his guitar and trying to replicate previous bands’ success, putting his ear to the whispers of songwriting secrets revealed only in the hissing of the vinyl pressed by bands long dead and gone.

The result is throw-back psych-rock, or perhaps more aptly, bedroom-rock. Indeed, For the Swan in the Hallway’s nostalgia is not just blatant; every chord and every riff reeks of the Beatles and their progeny. Calling this album derivative is an understatement; it seems to be constructed of a patchwork of individual sounds that have already been put to press, all stitched together into something new but not unique – the question is: is the resultant music more than the sum of its parts?

Well, this question is difficult to answer. Almost every song on For the Swan is well-crafted; for Kelly, the issue is not songwriting. Rather, it is about ability to separate himself from the decades past, because there is nothing particularly exceptional about his music. As a result, For the Swan is best described as an album composed of individually decent songs, but the whole actually becomes less than the sum of its parts.

Jeff Kelly is obviously a respectably accomplished guitarist, and it shows. His hooks flow effortlessly over strummed chords, conveying either a sense of romantic melancholy or bookish joy (apparently the only two emotions in Kelly’s repertoire). The problem is that, but for a few songs, his songwriting never transcends being simply “good.” The sharpness of the few effective hooks on the disc is quickly dulled by the grating ubiquities littering the rest of For the Swan.

That being said, there are a few winners on For the Swan that manage to stand out among the crowd. “The Lock” is a wonderfully subdued, piano-led atmosphere piece that showcases Kelly’s forlorn tenor. Here, he crafts a minimalist ambiance and wisely refrains from sonic overcrowding. The lyrics pretty accurately capture the bedroom-ridden Jeff Kelly; yes, the song is about a preserved lock of Emily Bronte’s hair. Bookish, lovelorn, glasses-wearing introvert who loves literature? I think we’ve seen this before. “Afterimage” follows directly after “The Lock” and continues the piano-driven melancholy. Though the two songs sound almost exactly the same, the idiosyncrasies of each outweigh their similarity. Elsewhere, individual components of songs shine through their otherwise dull facades; the forlorn guitar solo of “Stutter,” the urgent verse of “The Swan on the Hill,” and the hook of “The Girls of the Ford” are impressive, even if the songs in their totality are not.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty much downhill from there. “Whispers of the Pool” exemplifies the problem with the rest of the album; I was so sure that this song was a cover, I searched for it on the Internet. It might have well have been written by anyone from U2 to Sting to the Beatles. In fact, I think “Kissing Alma Mahler” was written by the Beatles.

In the end, Jeff Kelly’s obvious talent is lost in the obvious derivation that plagues his work. He might be better-served forgetting all of the Bronte, Beatles, and American Bandstand that he knows and just try to write something himself. He has to leave the comfortable confines of mid-20th century rock and find his own, contemporary voice. Unfortunately for Jeff Kelly and his bookworm charm, that may require him to leave his bedroom for a change.