Robin Kelly’s Shadowland is many things. One thing is an unintentional master course in discovering variations on a theme. The baker’s dozen worth of songs Kelly includes on his sixth album share basic common ground on several fronts. They hail from the singer/songwriter school, embrace folk influences more than any other, and never come across as strident. Blues plays an important role in shaping many of the album’s songs, however, and the lyrical point of view covers a wider emotional gamut than many of Kelly’s contemporaries. Shadowman, as well, gains a lot from musicians who abhor predictability.
It isn’t like Kelly whips out one surprise after another over the course of this album. Instead, the thrill of hearing this material comes from the subtle differences in the same essential formula that he achieves. Kelly takes on traditional music, harmonica, mandolin, and other touches, blends them with modern elements, and produces songs well within the retro camp but improbably of their time as well.
Some of the tracks are more solidly on classic ground. Shadowman opens with a trio of songs establishing the collection’s mastery of fundamentals above all else. “Sunrise”, however, has artful atmospherics, never exaggerated, and the track has a well-rounded finish few songwriters in any genre can achieve. “Good Morning, Captain Sir” is one of the album’s highlights. Kelly highlights his narrative gifts in a handful of Shadowman’s songs and this will rate high for many. The melody for this track is exquisite.
Based on its title alone, some may expect “Shadowman” is one of the album’s darker points. It isn’t so. The jaunty pace of the title song may surprise a few listeners after the quasi-ethereal leanings present in the first songs. It’s far from out of character though. Things do take a more intense turn, however, with the track “So Close to the Edge”. It sounds like, in the best possible way, a track culled from some foreign spaghetti western. An expansive, wind-swept fatalism hangs over the arrangement like a black crow looming above. The song’s harmonica doesn’t always show up but makes an impact when it does.
Sonia Wilson makes one of her best appearances on the album with the late song “It Settled with the Moon”. The intriguing title pays off with an enormously intelligent lyric and you can hear both singers recognizing they are working with something special here. They are never boisterous but there’s an effervescence in their vocal phrasing that gives added oomph to an already energetic performance.
The closer “Live Life Slow” ends Shadowman with a memorable solo performance. It looks to impart a bit of a lesson to listeners and doesn’t do it in any kind of heavy-handed way. This final nod in a folk direction will impress many as an especially fitting finale for Robin Kelly’s sixth album. It isn’t cliched for even a single track and that’s not easy to pull off for music of this sort. We come into hearing traditional music with a lot of preconceived notions but Kelly’s work shows superior songwriting can overcome anything.
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