November 16, 2001

Ken Stringfellow "Touched"

It's 7:54 PM on Sunday night, and I've been struggling with this review. Normally, just popping on the record inspires me to write, but this week, that practice simply has not worked for me. So, here I am, in the eleventh hour, with the big review on the lie...and I can't seem to verbalize my thoughts about it in a cohesive manner. The words are in my head, but they aren't translating on paper.

Believe me, it's not for any fault of Stringfellow's. This is the man's solo debut, and, of course, there should be a lot to say about that. You know the routine: okay, he was in the Posies, who made the 60s with a 90s grunge-lite twist, to critical acclaim, and from that, he was asked to join Big Star, the little band with the ironic name, famous because they were never famous. Then, from there, he joins the touring band of a very very famous band, R.E.M., and, along the way, guests on records made by his friends. There's lots that could be said about that, but every time I write, it just seems so boring, so clinical--as if I should be teaching a class and not writing a record review.As you know, I'm not one for the idea of writing a "journal" review. This is music, and this is a pop album we're talking about; this is not a scholastic exercise.

I can't fault Touched, either. It's not a record that bodes well for the "contrast the record to the artist's background," because, really, Stringfellow hasn't made a record quite like this. It doesn't sound like the Posies at all. There's not a real hint of the power-pop retro stylings that Stringfellow helped defined all those years ago. There's not a real hint of Big Star or Alex Chilton, either. Maybe there's a little hint of REM somewhere in the back, but that's probably due to the influence of former REM producer Mitch Easter taking control of the production duties.

One thing that strikes me, though, is that Stringfellow has this voice, this angelic choirboy of a voice, that strikes you numb from the first chord. The man can sing the most cliche of lines and thoughts of rock and roll and you won't really mind. He does, indeed, sing some rather trite lines, and, surprisingly, he can get away with it. Take, for example, "Don't you see/Love breaks you open so you can heal again/But this new love fits you like a glove/and this one's on you" from "This One's On You." With a slinky, slick keyboard-driven beat, you'd think you were listening to some pap, Adult Contemporary minded songwriter-type. Nope! It's our boy Stringfellow, and he's taken the cliched lyric and has captured its soul, freed it from its triteness, and has made it all his own. Gotta hand it to him, that takes talent, and I don't think he would get away with it if he sung one degree less than heavenly.

At this point, I started to feel a little tired, and felt that coffee would be a good idea. With a bit of a chill in the air, I headed to the local coffee shop, where some local folk singer was trying his best to motivate the slightly bored college students. "Heh," I thought, "glad I don't have to review this..this...coffeehouse singer!" Coffee in hand, I dashed back to my truck in an effort to get the hell away from what I'd just heard, and, in so doing, I turned on the radio. A big smile came across my face when the familiar guitar intro to one of the best songs ever.....then the words! Those lovely, beautiful words! "Everybody's talkin' at me, I can't hear a word they're sayin'....." and then, I knew. I finally learned what Ken Stringfellow is. I learned what Touched is.

See, Ken Stringfellow is no "singer-songwriter." Save that for the amateurs. No, Ken Stringfellow is a craftsman. He's a songcrafter. He is making art for the soul. There's no further proof of this than Touched--an aptly titled album, is it not? Stringfellow is, indeed, touched. The beautifully pedal-steel kissed opener "Down Like Me" demonstrates this quite well. It's a beautiful song to a suicide victim, and that we've all "been there" at some point: "When my self-pity became less than a full-time work/I meditated on the methods and the means/and whether or not it would hurt/Then I got the call they found you swinging out over the earth/So, over me you win again." He sings with such detachment that you wonder if he's less sad of his friend's passing as is impressed that his friend actually did it, instead of backing out of doing the deed. Carry that on to "Find Yourself Alone," where he sings that "nobody wants to hear the ravings of a bad drunk/they're afraid he would speak their minds" in such a manner that makes you think that Ken's speaking to you and to me, simply because he's been there, man. Stringfellow's simply reaching in and pulling out the songs that are in him, of him, and are him. I could continue on and on and on and on about each of these songs; but, like so many things, doing so would deprive you, dear reader of so many joys to be found inside of Touched

Touched is the wonderful sounds of a man who's humbly never taken to the spotlight. He could have done many things with this record; he's got the background to do anything he wants to. Instead of delving into his storied past, Stringfellow's simply created a new notch to his creative bedpost. That he's delivered this as a "solo" project bodes well for not only future solo records, but it also points to what kind of greatness Stringfellow can and, most certainly, will bring to his future collaborations and projects. If you simply like music without the pretense of genre, styles, or labels, then quietly make your way to Touched. You'll be presently surprised, inspired, and refreshed by this red-headed cherub's songs.

--Joseph Kyle

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