My systematic foray into independent music has only recently started, and although not all the music I have listened to matched my personal preferences, I have been pleasantly surprised at the consistent quality and passion that shines through every single track I listened to. It makes me wonder if there is a way to transcend personal preference, perhaps even only to a certain, limited extent, to be able to allow music one is not usually keen on to touch one’s heart.
I felt this way with Keith Allan Mitchell’s This Clumsy World. Hailing from San Francisco, Mitchell released this acoustic rock/folk album in June. He provided the vocals and some guitar, and was backed up by Jonathan Kirchner on bass, Andrew Laubacher on the tambourine, Michael Zisman on the mandolin, Kirby Hammel on keyboards, and Kathy Kennedy as backing vocals on the song “Swaying”. This team manages to create some very different sounds from track to track, brought together in one coherent whole by consistent emotion, passion, and a more acoustic approach.
The introductory and upbeat “Been Buried” is a no frills combination of acoustic guitar and vocals, played with enthusiasm and dynamism that encourages the listener to give the rest of the album a chance to see what else the talents displayed here can yield. This song, tasting strongly of alternative rock, is surprisingly layered and intense despite being simple.
The second song is also the longest song of the album, but you probably will not notice, when the final notes are played, that you have been listening to “Swaying” for a little over five minutes. That’s because Mitchell creates a tranquil, gentle listening experience in which you do feel like you are swaying in a hammock on a warm, sunny, summer day. The vocals are emotional yet soothing, bringing you into a place of joy and warmth. I found it a wise context for lyrics that discuss matters related to the necessary introspection, which needs to be done lovingly, before one can break free. Interestingly enough, it reminded me of the general message in a book I recently reviewed; this seems like the perfect song to constructively wallow to.
The infectious “You Just Disappear” features, perhaps ironically enough, the return of the beat featured in the opening song. The same melodic simplicity is also featured here in the form of an acoustic guitar, bass, and a tambourine. Yet again, the melody forms a context in which a message can be conveyed adequately, creating a song that is both inspiring and that might make your foot step to its rhythm. It is at this song that I realised the wisdom in crafting songs that are not depressing but still manage to convey messages that can be hard to swallow: it encourages the listener to move beyond these lessons into the realm of learning. It is perhaps one of the most interesting and fruitful translations of the concept of music being a ladder to the soul.
The ballad “Crossed That Line” features a mandolin and an organ within a melody that remains plain but filled with energy, which at this point, is emerging as the signature sound of this album. This dreamy, evocative song, even slower than its predecessors, welcomes you into a mellow, evocative place defined by an overall folk sound tinged with clearly country notes. The follow-up “What It Means to Soar” is yet another gentle upbeat track, whose message of empowerment and hope is contained within a folk rock melody.
The hints of country become stronger on “Tavern Angeline,” an upbeat, smooth song which also includes a taste of Americana. This track evoked an image of a cheerful guitarist in a, well, tavern, sitting on a small side stage, singing a cheery tune with the other members of his band. And while the live-band-in-a-tavern feel is still present in the following song, “The Feud” seems to be the song they would play in their late evening set. The melody in this darker song is sharper, and conveys much more attitude than the six previous songs combined. Despite the fact that this is still clearly a Keith Alan Mitchell song, the heavy notes of rock added to it by the bass make it the standout song of the album, the one you are most apt to remember. For while all the other songs are worth a listen, they are the sort that you will remember experiencing more than listening.
The remaining five songs are both similar to the first six, in that they are mellow, but also seem to have each been influenced by the elements in “The Feud,” which seems to have permanently permuted the style of the album.
“Next Time” is the first return to a gentle, country-flavored ballad that has a bit more zing than its predecessors. The following “Every Every” begins with the same simplicity as the opening “Been Buried” and features the same combination of upbeat melody with an interesting message to take home. The tune builds up gradually from guitar only to a track featuring a tambourine and drums. Mitchell chooses to frame his entrance into songwriting inspired by politics with a hopeful, classic rock-flavoured feel.
The penultimate “Diamond Blues” is one of the happiest-sounding songs of the album, the sounds of which makes you feel like you have been invited to step to the rhythm of a square dance held in a barn. The album closes with the gentle, thoughtful “Our Eyes,” a love song in which Mitchell describes the feelings associated when our eyes meet those of the ones we love.
Mitchell’s This Clumsy World is anything but a clumsy album. The range of sounds within the songs is not that wide, but each track retains a unique flavour despite whatever similarities may be found from song to song. The themes are universal. As Mitchell explains it, “All the songs have to do with breaking free in some way; escaping, moving on, even disappearing. That can be a good thing, like breaking out of old patterns or old disagreements, but it can also mean people moving away from each other, being adrift and not grounded.” The resulting album is energetic and thoughtful. A listener looking for something groundbreaking might get easily bored, but someone looking for an album to be the soundtrack to a day of hard, honest, labour and ending in the warmth of a home just might enjoy Mitchell’s voice carrying them through their day.