The facts that Kelly Hogan has backed up Neko Case on almost all of Neko’s records and that she’s also been brought into the studio by The Drive-By Truckers, Silkworm, Carolyn Mark, Jacob Dylan, Alejandro Escovedo, The Mekons, Mavis Staples, and Jon Rauhouse. speak volumes to how great her voice is, how much her presence means in the world of alternative country. Still more impressive, and emblematic of her stature, are the facts that she was chosen to sing Ronee Blakley’s “Dues” on the Carolyn Mark-curated tribute to the soundtrack of Robert Altman’s Nashville (that’s the equivalent of playing Salome or Carmen, probably) and that her new album I LIke to Keep Myself in Pain attracted writers such as Stephin Merritt (of the Magnetic Fields), Catherine Ann Irwin (of Freakwater), Vic Chestnutt, Andrew Bird, Robyn Hitchcock (of the Soft Boys), M. Ward, Robbie Fulks, and Brett & Rennie Sparks (The Handsome Family) to throw songs at her to sing.
I Like to Keep Myself in Pain is everything you’d expect from the one of the strongest souls of this scene. It sounds purple-toned and sparkling and antiqued. It’s like an 800-thread-count sheet of Egyptian cotton, weaving country threads into soul and downbeat girl group. The first part of the album is the strongest, especially the Irwin-penned “Dusty Groove.” Amazing tracks persist throughout, though, like “Sleeper Awake” and album-closer “Pass on By.” Stephin Merritt’s “Plant White Roses,” a Patsy Cline-esque longing, is not as breath-taking here as the original, sung by Shirley Simms for a pre-Magnetic Fields band called Buffalo Rome. Hogan’s version of Merritt’s “Papa was a Rodeo” from Beneath the Country Underdog was a better interpretation.
Though that is a trite critique that really has nothing to do with the Hogan album at hand, it illustrates that, in general, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain plays it pretty safe. Hogan takes the most risks on the songs written by Catherine Ann Irwin and Vic Chestnutt, who are always risky anyway. Not to say that I should be wishing for TV-style vocal acrobatics. Hogan fully inhabits every character she sings as. Her voice is direct and affecting. But the backing music is a little tame, even though the players have huge pedigrees, and it feels like some of the middling songs slipped through their fingers. The highs on I Like to Keep Myself in Pain carry the album with no real problem; it’s a lovely listen from start to finish, some of the finest meshing of soul and country you’ll hear.