Based on the range of material included in Songs From the South Vol. 1&2, not to mention the uniformly brilliant production throughout the two discs, it’s deeply confounding to consider that Paul Kelly remains sadly unknown outside his homeland of Australia. “”Before Too Long” and “”Look So Fine, Feel So Low” suggest how fully-formed he was as a writer and performer when he began recording. Then as now, he and his work transcend easy categorization or comparisons.
Kelly radiates a musicianly air as he adroitly fashions economical arrangements for songs such as “Careless.” He allows the musicians to stretch themselves while the songs retain their own shape. He deserves to have the utmost confidence in his material and that, in turn, allows him to be nearly as astute as a bandleader as a composer. The sound of the songs is almost as important as the words on “St. Kilda to King’s Cross,” for instance, as the acoustic and electric guitars present a dramatic framework for Kelly’s singing, the saxophone that wends its way in an out of the track and, last but not least, the carefully wrought lyrics.
Surrounded by small combos or large ensembles on “Won’t You Come Around” or “The Oldest Story in the Book,” this extraordinary author inspires the musicians who play his material so that they connect with it themselves: Kelly’s accompanists play with an urgency he belies with his generally offhanded vocal delivery. Whoever the players are, however, they invariably channel the emotions within the material directly to the listener, on “Leaps and Bounds,” to name just one track, the musicianship captures both the melancholy and the euphoria at the heart of the tune.
The respective groups’ collective light touch becomes all the more crucial on the latter half of this collection where Kelly and co. translate the wisdom of maturity on songs such as “Thoughts in the Middle of the Night.” Even the instrumental “Gunnamatta” finds them communicating a depth of experience: this vividly dramatic track explains why Kelly’s had such success composting for film and television in his homeland. Only “You’re 39, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine” is too precious for its own good.
The inclusion of two unreleased tracks on Paul Kelly’ Greatest Hits may not be as much attraction for fans as newcomers to the man’s gifts, but the self-effacing charm he exhibits when he performs something like “Dumb Things,” should be equally stirring for both the devoted and the novice.