THE CORNER MAN
I have a theory. It’s risky and bold and so far completely unsubstantiated. It goes like this: Super talented artists like Emmett Kelly find it so hard to get the right mix of energy and talent in supporting players for their records that they hold back, sometimes for years, looking for people to work with them on their groundbreaking records, which creep out very slowly, often with years in between each release, just because they can’t stand having outsiders come in and fuck everything up. These same talented loners often build up names for themselves by lending their genius to other artists’ records, to the point that those other artists get credited first in reviews, even before these talented and deserving loners get the spotlight. That’s my theory, and I’m sticking with it.
Well, I’m not going to do that in my review. Emmett Kelly’s new record, “The Corner Man,” is brilliant, literary, insightful, and all his as an artist with a unique voice and musical gift. This new record makes an important statement from a man whose career spans many records and projects. Kelley has something like 11 releases with which he’s associated, 4 are his alone. Personally, I’m hoping “The Corner Man” is the start of a new direction for Kelly, with more records appearing under his band’s name, The Cairo Gang.
The band name fascinates me and deserves a comment here. I read someplace that Kelly’s family, and especially his musician father, feel a strong connection to Ireland and Irish history. The historical Cairo Gang, a name given by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to a group of men in the early twentieth century, was actually a group of British spies sent to Dublin following World War I to organize opposition to the IRA and their War of Independence. Nineteen of the primary members of the historical group were brutally assassinated by the IRA. The rest fled back to Britain. The image is a particularly violent one, historically speaking. The band name, which I can’t believe is an accident, sets up an immediate tension about the message Kelly wants to send with his musical identity. If Kelley’s family roots are deep into an Irish identity, this choice of name seems potentially offensive to many people for many reasons, none of them having to do with Kelly’s music. I suspect it’s just an attempt to be clever, a band as a kind of embedded musical “spy” in the house of Indie Music, sowing confusion and alternate musical views. But I think the deeper meanings still need to be considered and the history respected. I find the name confusing and ill-fitting.
That said, Kelly’s musical talent is formidable. It’s his voice that I dwell on as I listen to the 8 tracks on “The Corner Man.” As a singer Kelly is the real deal. Tender, vulnerable, full of feeling and range, his lyrics float through these songs, often sitting atop the melodies, held in place by his expressive guitar and the excellent supporting musicians on this record: the extraordinary Leroy Bach (Wilco), Ben Babbitt (Pillars and Tongues), Sam Wagster (The Father Costume), and Ben Boye. My favorite track, because it highlights the range and sensitivities of Kelly’s singing abilities, is “Gland In Gland.” I also really like “Gone Is the Light,” with its confessional tone and almost meditative rhythms and feeling. “Everybody Knows,” the opening track, achieves its emotional impact with Kelly’s voice and Boye’s haunting piano. If Kelly is a spy, he’s a gentle one. If he’s calling us to rebellion, it’s a quiet, contemplative, inwardly focused kind of action, sitting down with friends to thoughtfully consider our options. If there are unifying emotional goals behind this record, I can’t think they are anything but courage, affection, awe, love, and pride. Not the seeds of fiery rebellion.
As I play this record through several times, and as I ponder the objective of this group of songs, the idea that maybe “Now You are One of Us” (titled “One of Us” on the vinyl LP), the second track, is the song that holds the key to Kelly’s approach, his band’s name, and musical objective. “You who have stood up tall with your back against the wall…. showed them that you’re not afraid to die in front of hatred….” This song has an obvious political feeling to it, an historical immediacy, and a surrender. “In the end, we will protect you,” the lyrics proclaim. The language evokes more of a Gandhian stance of unity and pride than one of a guerrilla fighter’s plotting an insurrection. “You are not to blame/We are mere players in this game….”
In spite of the sometimes dismissive press about this band and record, in favor of talking about Emmett Kelly’s role with other musicians, I think Kelly’s work needs to be taken seriously, taken as something separate from the many more recognizable and famous musicians his name is usually associated with. I think his talent and diligence have earned him the right to stand apart, on his own. (I promised myself I would leave out the names of his other more famous associates.) I sincerely hope that “The Corner Man” isn’t a record made between other engagements and obligations of this talented singer/songwriter. It’s time for him to come out of the shadows of others. There’s no reason The Cairo Gang shouldn’t be as well known as the other bands Kelly supports with his bountiful talent, nor should this band hold back on releasing more records. “The Corner Man” has found the right message for our times.