Mike Keneally
You Must Be This Tall


It would be true to say that I was waiting for the day of the release of the new Mike Keneally album with a strong sense of curiosity. It would also be a quite banal proposition, though, since, starting with his second solo album, every announcement of a new release from this US musician has filled me with a sense of anticipation.

Funny to notice that twenty years have passed since the day I bought his first solo album. It's also funny to remember that - though I had already heard him as a member of Frank Zappa's band, both on record and on stage (but not seen, given the fact that at the concert in Rome that I attended a large P.A. stack had kept Keneally, and the wind section, out of my view) - what really convinced me to purchase said album was the semi-regular column that Keneally penned for US monthly Guitar Player magazine, starting with the issue dated October, 1993. Title of the column: The Murk. And when a piece he wrote, Right-On '70s Classics, appeared in the issue dated February, 1994 of said magazine, where the cover story screamed Remembering The '70s, I became really curious to listen to this musician who mentioned in the same breath people like Jimi Hendrix, Gentle Giant, Led Zeppelin, Henry Cow, Joni Mitchell - and The Guess Who in their twin-lead guitar line-up featured on the album Share The Land.

The official discography which appears in the press release which comes with You Must Be This Tall has the number of albums released by Keneally as twenty-four (not including The Mistakes). I found the methodology employed here a bit bizarre, but anyway. I counted the albums I own: twenty out of twenty-four (not including The Mistakes).

Do I love unconditionally all those albums? Obviously not, my favourite titles being hat. (1992), Sluggo! (1997), Nonkertompf (1999), Wooden Smoke (2001), The Universe Will Provide (2004), and Scambot 1 (2009). And it's Scambot 1 the one that I consider to be the first one that people who have never heard of Keneally should buy. While, at least for this writer, his weaker albums are Dancing (2000), Dog (2004), and Wing Beat Fantastic (2012), the album Keneally shared with Andy Partridge of XTC.

Here I have to confess that the long list of favourable reviews that had greeted Wing Beat Fantastic left me puzzled: What about his previous albums, were they not just as good, if not (a lot) better? Was there a new "publicist", perhaps, with the right connections? Well, who knows! I seem to remember, in the distant past, albums like Nonkertompf and Dancing being reviewed on Down Beat and Rolling Stone, with commercial results that - from where I sit - I'd call "not impressive". Which is something that's not surprising, given the fact that Keneally's music, while definitely accessible, is - alas! - quite distant from the taste of the masses.

But - hey! - it's true that I was waiting for the new Keneally album with a sense of anticipation that was especially strong. The reason? If one has a look at said list of releases, one immediately notices that Scambot 1 (2009) is the last of his albums that could be called "a self-starter", those which followed being an "answer" to "outside stimuli": Evidence Of Humanity (2010) had a long drum solo by Marco Minnemann as its starting point; Bakin' @ The Potato! (2011) is a live recording by The Mike Keneally Band; Wing Beat Fantastic (2012) being the work shared with Andy Partridge. It's true, I have a strong desire to listen to Scambot 2 (but only if Keneally will be in the proper mood to conceptualize it). But it has to be said that in the last few years Keneally has spent a lot of time performing and recording as a member of groups such as Dethklok and the Joe Satriani band. It's a professional occupation that in the past I had wished for him - you can file this under: "be careful what you wish for!".

To say that listening to You Must Be This Tall had me puzzled would be an understatement. Didn't like the cover, which is the negative of the photo which appears in the tray of Wing Beat Fantastic. And though its duration is that of a vinyl album from the old days - 12 tracks, 44' total - to me the work appeared as being interminable, and a source of boredom. So I decided to investigate the potential reasons for this.

There's only one Keneally album that I could not connect with: Dog. It appears that You Must Be This Tall is now album #2. To me, it sounds like somebody inputted all his previously released albums into a computer in order to get new pieces that sound like him but that he never composed, or played. What it lacks is his proverbial verve, his usual spark. After a few listening sessions, I noticed that my considering the album as "monotonous" didn't hold water, given the great variety of genres and instrumentation featured. So I directed my attention to the sound, which I considered as being too liberal in its use of reverb, also too "dense", too crowded in the midrange: everything can be heard clearly... in the middle of a crowd of events. It goes without saying that no sound can be regarded as being "wrong", per se. It's that, in my opinion, the sound of the music is not a good match for those musical climates. Then, I remembered that this is the first Keneally album I've listened to since I bought a new CD Player with a 24bit DAC. So I listened again to the new album, this time side-by-side with Scambot 1 and Wing Beat Fantastic, in order to have a level playing field. Quite unexpectedly, I immediately noticed that I found Wing Beat Fantastic to be a lot more inviting and communicative, which is definitely surprising, given the fact that I don't really like the music on it!

Readers will have to judge for themselves. I tried to find an album in my collection that's not too appealing for reasons pertaining to its recorded sound, and this is what I found: The Who's Quadrophenia, where all the tracks sound the same. But though the sound lacks variety, songs such as The Real Me, The Punk And The Godfather, 5:15, and Love, Reign O'er Me, all jump out of the speakers - and stick in one's mind. So?

Given this general framework, the tracks I liked more were the first, and the last. But it has to be said that both You Must Be This Tall - an elaborate version of the demo Keneally prepared for the Metropole Orkest, who premiered it in Holland in 2006 - and Glop - a guitar solo whose various motifs where orchestrated after the fact for various instruments - are quite Zappa-related, and so could be filed under "Back To The Roots". Here Marco Minnemann is featured on drums, all the other instruments (a lot) being played (quite well) by Keneally himself.

Cavanaugh has a "Prog" taste, it's quite varied, and well-orchestrated, Keneally being on vocals and all instruments, quite brilliantly. Cornbread Crumb is your classic instrumental piece by The Mike Keneally Band, but there's something lethargic about this performance, which makes the piece (6' 32") feel as lasting too long, though there's a good guitar solo, a fine melody, and nice keyboards. I was surprised to read that "Cornbread features perhaps Keneally's best recorded lead guitar playing to date". Excuse me?

Kidzapunk is a mini-opera, its elements not too fresh-sounding. Pitch Pipe sounds like the soundtrack to a monster movie: it's quite intricate, with lotsa instruments, and excellent bass and drums (Keneally again). The Rider is the track I found to be the most boring of the bunch, a "classic rock ballad" (Neil Young?) whose duration (6' 47") feels interminable, though it's well-orchestrated, and with fine bass and drums (Keneally again).

Popes is not that different from the repertory of The Mike Keneally Band, a vivacious song.

Just the other day, while reading the premiere column penned by Keneally for Guitar Player (titled My Glorious State Of Mind) I noticed this: "The bitchin' thing about getting old is that, without overdue effort, certain things suddenly become quite clear."

To quote Annie Lennox, "Who am I to disagree?".

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2013

CloudsandClocks.net | Aug. 27, 2013