Once-time contributor to slop-folk megagroup the Earth People Orchestra and current member of the “never-famous dirt-heavy bacon-pop tri-force” Beach Hair, DIY savant Joseph Kelly has bequeathed unto us an audio journal for the ages. Assembled from influences as diverse as top 40 R&B and Tupac Shakur, Wicked Yawnz is the audio journal of someone so capable at expressing his thoughts in music that these pindrop samples of his personal catharsis reach heights seldom achieved by most artists’ formal recorded output. Kelly describes the process as a “punk band diary,” set down in proverbial stone through a series of spontaneous moments, spurred on by dreams, lovers, alcohol, a nice walk, or an old 45. Each song’s odd instrumentation is virtually always a product of availability, but whether he’s setting beats on a casio keyboard or strumming on an old acoustic, Kelly has a remarkable knack for capturing and conveying genuine experiences in their purest form and planting the seeds of his own memories in listeners. Fans of Jeff Mangum and Graham Smith will be all over this.
Most people who keep journals or diaries combine pure factual reporting with a fair bit of editorializing on their experiences. Kelly’s musical entries are no less complex. He composes songs both about what he’s seen or done, but also what he’s thought he’s seen or done, which in the song world translates to something infinitely more interesting than “I totally saw Mitch with Jackie today” (fact) “and Jackie’s hair looked like shit so I totally think Mitch is into me” (opinion). Though “composed” spontaneously, Kelly’s lyrics flow naturally with the force of experience to push them over the cusp into sound. He’s not shooting for perfection, just expression. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, available on Wicked Yawnz in the greater blogosphere, and I get the sense that these songs were never strictly intended for a public audience. From the moment one sits down to write a memoir it’s with the intention that it should eventually be read; diaries not so much, and “punk band diaries”, definitely not so much. Every time I hear another “Live and Unplugged” album from an established artist, I feel like I’m listening to memoirs on tape. The intro to some much beloved song kicks in and all I hear is, “Though it’s commonly thought that I cheated on my wife while she was dying of cancer, I really didn’t, so there. Can we give it a fucking rest now?” Memoirs suck, musical or otherwise. But reading someone else’s journal is an exhilarating experience in uncensored voyeurism. You’re always waiting to see whether you’ll make an appearance, and if so, whether the diarist’s perception of your person or actions match whatever broad self-expectations you’ve built up. Of course, few of us are likely to make an explicit appearance in Kelly’s musical journal, but I nevertheless sympathize with people and situations in his songs in a way that strikes me as peculiarly personal.
In his own words, both songs on this 7-inch are “about the same person first off and both kind of have this sense of I’m sorry I fucked up, but also a bit of humor and some well fuck it. I don’t care. Too late anyways. I guess.” A-side “Baby I was a Bad Friend (Love You)” is a self-deprecating second-person account of a broken relationship, wrought with intersecting feelings of love, attachment, hatred, regret, and self-affirmation. Acoustic guitar piped in at the wrong (or just the right?) level lends a consistent drone to Kelly’s strumming. Somewhere in the background a snare stumbles along, and Kelly’s endearingly abrasive voice plainly describes the state of a failed union over an increasing veil of fuzz. Like a Pollard demo tape, it’s the musical clarity that carries through above all else, and the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic that surrounds it only enforces its authenticity as a personal document, that we as listeners should feel privileged to hear it. When it occurred to me, this thought somehow substantiated my already budding suspicions that these are fundamentally archival documents. N.B.: Music nerds respond to the word “archival” like club girls respond to V.I.P. It’s the de facto signifier of quality that lets us know, “Even if this sounds like shit, listen to it because it’s worthwhile.” Not that Wicked Yawnz sounds entirely like shit, but ya know, it’s totally worthwhile.
One caveat of the spontaneous song is that the harmonic structure needs to be kept relatively simple in order for the artist in question to make it through the damn thing. This is made up for by complexities of texture, and little imperfections that mix things up enough to remedy any repetitious elements. Plus, repetition can be comforting. There’s an element of drone to everything Kelly does on this 7-inch, and it creates an almost meditative backdrop to the narrative of his lyrical journal. Take for example B-side “This Ain’t No Free Style…“ The song’s dead simple: a clap beat on 1, 2+, and 3+, a three note continuo that makes g G D seem somehow as important as the bassline to “Moonlight Sonata”, and a treble line that runs the scale with slow deliberation. But there are glitches, subtle ones, that disturb this little trio. The whole song distorts every 12 seconds or so, just enough to prevent someone listening from ever truly settling into the superficial monotony of it all. The tune never wholly disintegrates, and these momentary lapses become part of the repetition–a fourth element to the now familiar trio. Then, as the song winds to a close, it comes apart. Variations in tempo, short skips, and a new electric piano arpeggio pull whatever stitches were holding it all together, and the song spirals into a short bout of dissonance before the track ends with an abrupt cut. It’s a dramatic finish to the song and a suiting close to a musical journal entry that finds our hero Joseph Kelly feeling pissed off that his girlfriend constantly compares him to her ex, who was apparently adept at beatboxing, freestyling, and fucking shit up. The song opens with a line from Kelly, then moves on to a kind of question and answer format between Kelly and his girlfriend (who’s incidentally also the subject of “Baby I Was A Bad Friend (Love You)”, with a kind of Greek Chorus commenting on Kelly’s lack of mad skillz.
Kelly: I wrote down a rap song, but I can’t rap very well. Girl: Do you know how to beat box? Kelly: I can’t be box very well. Chorus: Ain’t no Rahzel, Kelly: Or whatever that guy’s name is. Girl: Do you know how to freestyle? Kelly: Can’t freestyle very well, Chorus: Ain’t no Rahzel, Kelly: Or whatever that guy’s name is. Girl: Careful where you aim that spray can, Girl: People be judging that shit, man. Kelly: Ain’t your ex-boyfriend, Kelly: Whatever that guy’s name was. Kelly: And I don’t plan to paint the town, Kelly: Just my neighborhood, for now. Kelly: Ain’t very good, Kelly: I’m trying.
There’s a common message to both songs on this 7-inch–sure there’s anger, sadness, and loss, but there’s also a real sense of hope. As abused as he feels, Kelly’s essential human impulse is to make the situation better. “I’m trying,” he says in the last line of “This Ain’t No Free Style…“. This is somehow what makes him such a personable character in the musical telling of his own trials and troubles. There’s no narcssism, no blind self-assertion or genuine hatred. Just a handful of pity mixed with an extraordinary ability to convey genuine and simultaneous feelings of love and loss about a single subject. Why he ever thought to share a gift so intensely personal with the world is a glorious mystery, but after having spent several weeks with the 7-inch, I’m itching to hear the record, read the novel, and watch the film of Wicked Yawnz. Give these tunes a listen, I mean a real close listen, and I guarantee you’ll feel the same way.
Baby I Was a Bad Friend
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem120/01 Baby I Was a Bad Friend.mp3
This Aint No Free Style
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem120/02 This Aint No Free Style.mp3