Paul Kelly’s extraordinary gifts as a songwriter are rooted in a musical expertise, virtues that turn what was originally a series of 7-inch singles released into a full length album that’s deeply affecting from start to finish. On The Merri Soul Sessions, a gracious humility allows Kelly to become part of a band populated by some his own regular accompanists, while his esteemed stature in his native Australia also attracts the robust participation of his country’s well-known vocalists, so that this collection becomes an essential entry into Paul Kelly’s discography and a smart introduction to his work at the same time.
The methodical means by which the eleven tracks were prepped and recording belies the punch of the musicianship that resonates throughout the depth of its recorded sound. The ensemble fronted by Linda Bull on “Smells Like Rain” manages to capture the ominous quiet of those moments before drops fall as fully as “Sweet Guy,” featuring her sibling Vika, manifests an edgy combination of satisfaction and anticipation, thanks in part to the way the crisp notes of electric piano glimmer in the spacious mix.
Paul Kelly’s own lead vocals, judiciously spaced in the sequence of songs, spotlight how affecting he can be as a singer himself. On tracks including “Righteous Woman” and “Thank You,” the detailed lyrics he writes are as discerning as his melodies are radiant, such songs compact illustrations of people and place that, in performance, flower into a fulsome emotional portraits. The original songs on The Merri Soul Sessions are as much of a collaborative effort as any other aspect of the project, though, so Dan Sultan’s vocal spotlight on “Don’t Let A Good Thing Go,” as close to standard R&B conventions as these tunes come, resonates with the impact of complementary talent well-utilized.
In fact, the concept and execution here boasts of a palette of skills from all the involved, maximized to the fullest. “Where Were You When I Needed You,” for instance, haunts in such a way it will stop a listener from casual hearing and compel close perusal to appreciate the nuance of Clary Browne’s singing and the subtleties of the rhythm section as it unobtrusively propels the arrangement. “I Don’t Know What I’d Do” conjures the same effect via its brevity and simplicity, leaving its distinct, memorable impression largely through the vulnerable vocal of Kira Puru.
The skills as a recording artist Paul Kelly’s nurtured during the course of his close-to-thirty year career enhance his co-production of The Merri Soul Sessions with recordist and mix engineer Steven Schram. Accurately evincing the smart pacing of a live set, “Down on the Jetty” signals the home stretch of this studio work, while the ebullient “Hasn’t It Rained,” becomes such a rousing close, with its echoes of Fifties rock and roll underpinning the gospel-influenced singing, it may compel a repeat play in very short order—quite probably the first of many.