At the bar a few nights ago I found myself disoriented. Or, should I say, more disoriented than usual. A song had come on over the jukebox that I loved dearly yet couldn’t place. I also couldn’t taste my drink or feel strength in my arms, but I’ll save those problems for a darker arena – my journal. Songs and drinks usually mix quite well for me, as do walking home and regret. The next morning I woke up and started shamefully digging through my music collection, determined to find that song. That big, beautiful, elusive song with the whiny guitar and fragile vocals. No luck. Finally, just today, about 90 seconds before I bashed out this sentence, I finally heard the song again: Jon Keller’s “Hope and Depression,” the immediate standout track from his solo debut, Down In a Mirror. It’s a song from a Fort Wayne artist that brings the goosebumps just as much as the opening seconds of “Street Fighting Man” or “Like a Rolling Stone.”
It’s a classic song. Classic song. Just, wow. Maybe even my favorite song of the year, Fort Wayne or otherwise. It’s nothing groundbreaking or epic, but it just feels so big. So big and perfect, but also sweet and private. Keller, who has played with Lee Miles for years (as well as Thunderhawk, Mark Hutchins, Wooden Satellites and more), is finally offering up an album many in the Fort Wayne music community have been hearing about for sometime now. Those of us who had heard the chatter all surely had similar experiences when asking Keller about this record – “I hate it,” basically, is what he’ll tell you. How can the guy have such bad taste in listening and great taste in creating? Other explanations for Keller’s feelings on his album: (1) he’s so sensitive that he’s most comfortable keeping the bar low; or (2) he’s promising even better things to come. For now, we have Down In a Mirror, another great album out of the Fort Wayne music scene. And damn, great title, Keller.
The most obvious thing to say is that Jon Keller likes Elliott Smith. And it’s true, he does, but after a few spins I found myself fighting off that too-easy explanation. For starters, Keller – whom I believe played almost everything on the record – seems to be a much better all-around musician than Smith. He can’t write as well as Ells could, but who can? Also, for you ageists out there, I’ll note Keller’s age: 23. For frame of reference, Smith was 25 when his first record, Roman Candle, was released. Me? I prefer Keller’s to Smith’s debut – that’s how good I think this is. It’s a complete work where Smith’s record feels like a blueprint.
Mirror is a very full-sounding album that clocks in at about 30 minutes over nine tracks, with only one song, closer “Why Can’t I,” topping the four-minute mark. Keller’s confidence in his music arranging ability is amazing, as is his self-recorded sound. The vocals, which I’m sure he stressed about the most, are also great. He’s not quite the whisper singer Smith was, but he’s in that ballpark. Mostly he does what works best by never pushing himself outside his range. On “White Tornado,” a song that feels both like a children’s song and a possible single, he sings fun, nonsensical vocals about tearing up the grass and digging up the trash over a riff-driven accompaniment that should do nicely in the live element.
Opener “Funny Face,” admittedly, had to grow on me. Knowing that Keller is an odd kind of fellow, hearing him sing about walking around and “seeing the funniest faces” feels oddly sweet and somehow amusing. He’s singing about girls, I think, but also himself. This guy who, mind you, doesn’t like his own record sings dark, sad lines like “in the mirror I see the stupidest face that I’ll always try to replace” with tender delicacy. You don’t know if you should feel bad for the guy or sneak into his apartment and steal his mirrors and feed him vodka. He sounds tortured, but in a sweet, growing sort of way. Anger does not exist on Down In a Mirror.
Finding direct references (aside from Smith) for Keller is difficult. Nothing sounds too weird or alien, but there’s just no obvious point of reference. It’s clear that he likes both rootsy and meaty guitar riffs; it’s obvious that he’s a fan of both classic rock and the artsy stuff; and we know for sure that he’s the kind of guy who cares about words. Mostly it seems that Keller really took his time on these songs. Each feels like a labor of love, and we, the listeners, are the better for it.
I used to regularly make grand statements about Fort Wayne’s many great songwriters. Not so much anymore. But I can say with no regrets that Down In a Mirror is one of the best records the city has produced, and it was made by a 23-year-old guy who has an awful lot going for him. Monster guitar player and good composer, sure, but a surprisingly good singer and writer, too. If this Jon Keller clown finds the guts and motivation to make people pay attention to him and his killer debut record, he just might be the one who makes it outta town.
Keller will celebrate the release of Down In a Mirror with an album release show at the Brass Rail on Saturday, August 28. Cover is $4, and Keller will be backed by an all-star crew of players, including Jon Ross, C. Ray Harvey, Friend Derek, Mitch Frazier and Zach Smith. Thunderhawk and Elsinore are also set to play.