In the interest of being forthright, I feel it necessary to preface this review by admitting that I’ve thus far only heard the unmixed demos for Jon Keller’s second album, Deceiver, but I’ve heard them an awful lot – so much so that I know most of the words to the songs and have memorized many of the carefully ornamented nuances. Normally, I’d follow the rules and wait until I have an “official,” fully mixed and mastered copy of the album in hand to write a review; but tonight, after listening to the record four straight times, I just can’t help myself. Deceiver is a career-starter record stocked full of some of the highest high points Keller’s hometown music scene of Fort Wayne has ever produced. The result is a record that many will call the “best ever record out of the Fort Wayne scene.” And while I’m not quite ready to anoint such praise, I wouldn’t dare question anyone who did. It’s a killer indie-meets-singer/songwriter collection, one that will make believers of many.While most musicians are either standout writers, players or producers, Keller seems to be all three. What jumps out immediately from this collection is the often-big sound of Keller’s bedroom production. A onetime music recording student, Keller has seemingly mastered the fine art of lo-fi self recording, creating a diverse collection of songs that sound as professionally recorded and produced as anything currently on the indie shelves. The album’s opener, and title track, is easily the biggest sounding song I’ve ever heard from a Fort Wayne artist. For the composition Keller supposedly arranged 30-plus e-bow tracks to create a backdrop that is cinematic and sprawling, full of lovable flourishes and details that reward with repeat listens. On the track he sings in a voice not heard on his excellent debut, last year’s Down In a Mirror. Not quite a falsetto, the pitch is high and the vibe gentle, Keller singing sweetly abstract vocals that don’t begin to hint at his young age of 24. The first verse we hear on the record – “I am the great deceiver / The young secret keeper / You are the one believer in love / So here is my introduction of lies and destruction / Would you check your heart at the door” – should instantly quiet any naysayers who doubted the young songwriter’s poetic abilities.
In addition to finding many new ways to use his voice, Keller has taken the time to add countless cosmetic details to each track. We hear birds chirping outside a window, guitar strings coiling, friends clapping, cars driving by the window of his bedroom studio, etc. Also, he’s given an incredible amount of attention to his background vocals on many of the songs, finding a number of unique ways to further diversify his works. Taking no shortcuts, Keller (who can play just about any instrument you put in his hands) also utilizes the talents of a number of his friends on the record, including drums from both Lee Miles and Jon Ross, backing vocals by his wife Amy, some licks from Church Shoes’ guitarist Mitch Fraizer, keys from The Orange Opera’s Kevin Hambrick and some e-bow brilliance from Vandolah’s Mark Hutchins. Others, too, I imagine, though the bulk of the instrumentation is handled by Keller himself who, just a year or so ago was known only as a guitarist.
Short and twangy, “The First Thing” is a bouncy and dusty pop composition that could very likely trump the great “Hope and Depression” as Keller’s most crowd-pleasing song yet. It feels breezy and classic, complete with timeless vocals and playing that reminds a little bit of one of Keller’s biggest influences, The Band. It’s one of the simplest yet most successful songs amongst the record’s 12 offerings. Another favorite, the perfectly penned “A Bottle Tonight,” is a quiet, stripped-down track that needs no more than processed guitar, layered voice and spare flourishes to stand as one of the most memorable songs I’ve heard all year. The focus of this song in particular is the words, Keller singing the sure-to-be-classic line “If I had a lover to catch my fall I wouldn’t need a bottle tonight” in a convincing way that hints at some authentically troubled nights from his past. It’s the kind of track that, in time, I think will be covered and reinterpreted by many kindred spirits.
“Already Dead” finds Keller again switching things up, playing a swaggering lick and sing-speaking some awesomely lazy vocals. Twangy riffs, oddball backing vocals and haunting organs flesh out the pop tune in a nice, tasteful fashion. Another breezy standout, for sure. On the less breezy end of the spectrum is the very emotional sounding “Hanging Around,” featuring lines like “Then you killed off all of my friends / That’s where your hatred of women begins / Cause they’ll steal me away from you,” and, maybe most telling, “Trust is not something to give into.” The song builds in a way that reminds me of Elliott Smith’s swan song record, the great From a Basement on the Hill. I could go on, talking about each song (as all of them are great), but I’m running out of space. There are songs written from a happy voice, from a sad voice, from a friend’s voice and from an unknown place. There’s reactionary writing and therapeutic writing. There are happy moments like “Bottle of Wine” and morose-yet-comforting tracks like “Breaking Heart.” Diversity, again, is the theme here.
I don’t yet know what Deceiver’s final tracklist will include, and I haven’t even heard final mixes. I do know, however, that whatever Keller ends up putting out will be quite good. Better than quite good – it’ll be great. With the highlights – especially “Deceiver,” “The First Thing,” “A Bottle Tonight,” “Bottle of Wine” and “Already Dead” – so plentiful and diverse, I’ve no doubt that the record will go down as one of the great indie rock albums of 2011, here (Keller’s current home, Fort Wayne), there (Keller’s future home, Nashville), anywhere with speakers and suckers. With a great debut already in his tank, Keller set out to make an even better batch of songs. By developing his vocal style, bulking up (and diversifying) his arrangements and maturing his writing, he’s done just that, creating a record that I feel comfortable calling a new indie classic. It’s at once beautiful, haunting, eclectic and heartbreaking.
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