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Mike Keneally - Wine and Pickles Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 July 2008
ImageMike Keneally calls Wine and Pickles “The album I didn’t know I was making over the last 10 years.” We should all be very happy that his subconscious has been working as hard as his conscious self, because Wine and Pickles is pure unadulterated pleasure.

Subtitled “being a collection of unreleased things, rarities and all sorts,” W&P is one of those rare releases where the whole of the work is much greater than its pieces and seems to speak to something much greater. Like in “Fantastic Voyage,” it feels as if we’ve been shrunk to microscopic size, injected into MK’s brain and allowed to wander a path made up of his wildly creative and highly electric/eclectic synapses.

Wine and Pickles is a generous compilation that doesn’t have that feeling of “let’s put out anything left in the vaults and try to make a little cash from it.” You know, like a Rolling Stones live album. Instead, the listener is treated to: pieces composed for CourtTV (listen to “Kevorkian 17” and tell me you don’t need to recheck the locks on the windows), strange musical experiments like “S4” (a requiem for a beloved hamster), the unexpurgated versions of wonderful songs that were edited to accommodate the CD format (the stunning “Skull Bubbles” becomes enlightening), and new Keneally treasures which are like signposts showing us how far his musical genius has travelled over these last 10 or so years. It’s these treasures that make Wine and Pickles so exquisite (a phrase I never thought I’d write, much less, think). “Feelin’ Strangely” is one of the greatest things MK has ever put to tape (or hard drive, as the case may be), and you have to wonder how great an album Dog was that it could be left off. As much as I love that CD I’ve got to say: it shouldn’t have. Fluid in nature and wet in sound with overlapping deeply chorused guitars, it drifts gently, like a boat without a rudder under a starry night. Keneally sings like a man both calm and confused until one of the most hellacious guitar solos in existence cuts through the languid music like a 30-foot superspeedboat. And just as sudden the tide goes out and a brief passage of musique concrete signals a change in tempo and leads to my favorite lyric of the year, “Gonna kiss Boz Scaggs on the head / Gonna kiss Boz Scaggs on the head tonight.” What? I’d like to be able to say I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean but, um… actually I do. When I’m depressed and confused and wondering what the hell is going on in this gloriously strange world, weird crapola like that will pop into my head. I once sang “I don’t like tabouli give me chick peas consistently” non-stop for an entire day (many times out loud). I was feelin’ strangely. Mike captures that notion perfectly with this song.

“Inhale,” a cut he recorded with Lyle Workman (a great musician whom I knew about from his work with Todd Rundgren), is lush, quirky and daring. It contains what are easily Keneally’s greatest vocals, and vocal arrangements, before turning extremely strange. A little over halfway into the song it suddenly switches tone and becomes angular and angry. Keneally’s vocals turn into a monotone (almost monotonous) story of a man who needs to take some time to breathe. Coupled with a vocal that escalates while the lead drones on, the effect is disconcerting and gives you the clear impression we’re subconsciously talking about a society where there’s not enough rose smelling going on.

Wine and Pickles closes with “The Endings of Things,” which MK says is about a “seriously unusual girl” and came about because of a request to write a “Jeff Buckley-like” song.  He also notes he was inspired by David Crosby’s “Triad,” and you can see both hovering like ghosts over the song (I know Crosby’s not dead but go along with me here.)

The opening has some of Buckley’s signature climbing vocals before the song morphs into verses anchored by a repetitious Crosby-esque two-chord open-tuned acoustic guitar, and very intense vocals.  At one point he sings “Tell me my friend / is the price you pay not hell?” with a level of hurt confusion in his voice that I don’t know whether to be frightened of or sad for.

As the song continues it becomes all too clear it is a warning from himself to himself about getting involved with someone, knowing full well it leads to destruction. He includes imaginary warnings from his friends, recognizing that everything about the situation is wrong, but he goes on tearing everything down until the object of his desire smiles and his doom is sealed. It is one of the most lovely and complex songs about the nature of human nature I’ve heard, and it frames our restless ability to walk the path of emotional disaster looking for a corner piece to a puzzle that is already complete.

I write about these three tunes for a very specific reason. It’s rare to find three examples of music this creative, daring and outright marvelous on any release, and clearly points to Keneally’s unbounded musical genius. I’m not talking about genius in the pop music hot new sales way but an actual certified musical genius equally at home as a composer and a player. I don’t know if he wrote symphonies at age five but I wouldn’t question it if someone said he did. Jimi Hendrix is a genius on guitar, Bob Dylan is a genius with words and Frank Zappa is a genius of composition; Mike Keneally is a genius to music as a whole loving entity. It’s not that everything he does is perfect, whole and undeserving of critical analysis. It’s just that his over the top abilities and capabilities are undeniable. To bring it back around, these three enormous songs were left off of previous releases because they didn’t fit his grand plan for that particular foray into the musical world. As if each was a bad chord. A chord may be beautiful, but it won’t necessarily fit in to the composition.

There are plenty of other pleasures to be found on Wine and Pickles, particularly the version of “Backwards Deb” that is head and shoulders better than the version he released on Dancing. The utterly strange “Stop for Flashing Red Light, Part One” is also a snaky treat, but rather than give away all the juicy goodness contained within I hope you’ll rush out to and pick up a copy.

Wine and Pickles does speak to something much greater, it articulates an artist with an immense talent who should be lifted upon the shoulders of musicians each and every time he walks into a room so he can be carried about like Julius Caesar or Rudy Ruettiger. Whether people shout “All hail to the hero” or “look at the freak,” Mike Keneally should be known to and noticed by everyone who believes that music is the embodiment of humanity’s greater self. Keneally and his beautiful, exciting, ugly, cruel, joyous, challenging, soothing and wild music should not be embraced merely by the few, it should be hugged by everyone.                         
I ordered Wine and Pickles from and it was shipped lickity split. It is an incredibly well-mastered and -produced CD and seemed to explode (in a good way) out of my home stereo system. The articulation and dynamics of the original source recordings are so well defined that at times it sounded as if the music was being played right there in front of me. I downloaded it into iTunes in an Apple Lossless format and it still sparkled on my trusty G5 with the Harmon Kardons.

I took W&P on a road trip to the bank (gas prices these days have been tough on my mandatory road tests) and it sounded great even with the windows down (my air conditioning has gone pffffttt). A guy sitting at a red light didn’t like the Keneally monster and turned his stereo up really loud. He was playing the friggin’ Madonna/Timberlake Timex noize so I was instantly plunged into a dank depression that made me want to abandon my car and head towards the light. Luckily, his stereo grew so distorted it sounded like bees in an aluminum trashcan and he had to turn it down. Then again, maybe it wasn’t distorted at all. All things pass and soon he was careening into the Starbucks parking lot and MK was, once again, blaring out for all the world to hear. Sounds great, I tell ya! Buy now.

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