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ODD SQUAD : At First, Joe Ely and Paul Kelly Seem Nothing Alike, but Look Closer and You'll See Similarities

November 10, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

The names Joe Ely and Paul Kelly make for an imperfect rhyme, but their mutual presence on the bill Friday at the Coach House promises many perfect examples of the song-crafter's art.

If one considers only their stage personalities, Ely, the fiery Texan from Lubbock, and Kelly, the quiet, unassuming Australian from Melbourne, are two completely different types.

But beneath the surface, similarities pop up.

For starters, the two performers, who will play separate solo acoustic sets, are responsible for two of this year's best albums. Ely and a bunch of his friends from the fertile Texas singer-songwriter scene collaborated on "Songs From Chippy," an album of music written for a play based on the real-life, Depression-era diaries of a West Texas prostitute. Few albums have better captured a sense of time and place--and timelessness, too.

Incorporating country, Western swing and cabaret music, "Songs From Chippy" sounds like a ghostly echo, 50 or 60 years removed from its origins. Ely, who has been making rockin,' twangin' albums that cross back and forth between country, rock and folk since 1977, weighs in with "Goodnight Dear Diary," the wistful waltz that frames the album, "Cold Black Hammer," a dire-sounding work song, and "Whisky and Women and Money to Burn," a country sing-along that Waylon and Willie should be just itching to try.

Kelly's new album, "Wanted Man," is the latest in a series of strong records that goes back to his auspicious 1987 U.S. debut, "Gossip." Like Ely, Kelly doesn't limit himself stylistically. The new album begins with a fervent love ballad constructed with piano and strings, then proceeds to rippling folk-rock, tense reggae rhythms and a swaggering rockabilly-blues.

While his mild-mannered exterior doesn't mesh with commonplace notions of what's hot, Kelly writes some of the most accomplished erotic love songs in pop. There's nothing tawdry or reductive about "Just Like Animals" and "We've Started a Fire," both from his new album. They sizzle with physical passion but are more concerned with the eruption of feeling between sex partners than with the mechanics of clasping and grinding flesh.

Kelly's subject matter is hardly limited to sex. "Everybody Wants to Touch Me" portrays a celebrity spitting out the bad taste that comes with being turned from a person into an object. "You're Still Picking the Same Sore" is a song that many listeners may want to send to warring couples who insist on drawing their friends into their battles. It's as biting as a gentle folk-rock tune can be.

What makes Kelly distinctive is his ability to write direct, easily understood songs that avoid the obvious through subtle strokes.

"Nukkanya," the tender, aching ballad that ends "Wanted Man," is a sad vignette about two parting lovers. It's also a moving commentary on poverty and the general tragedy of living--rendered not with inflated conceits or barbed rhetoric, but in the natural-sounding words of an everyday working man who must leave his impoverished home to find work. In one line, "My land was once a river, I hate to see it slowly bleeding dry," Kelly gives his love song its political dimension. With a sighing couplet, "Nukkanya, don't it go to show what a man don't know/Nukkanya, baby, I really don't want to go," he elevates it to universal tragedy.

Ely and Kelly both have been able to put together excellent touring and studio bands over the years. Both have done commendable work as patrons of their own art. During the long years that Jimmie Dale Gilmore was in a self-imposed exile from the music business, Ely, his friend since their teens, performed Gilmore's songs and kept them in circulation. Then, when Gilmore re-emerged, Ely helped him land an independent record deal that proved to be the first step in Gilmore's ascent toward the hero status he now enjoys among fans of progressive-country music. Kelly, similarly, has helped Archie Roach, the superb aboriginal singer-songwriter, gain exposure both in Australia and the United States.

Ely and Kelly also have cult status in common.

Ely's rough-hewn combination of country and heartland rock has always been a hard sell to the mainstream, although it is not inconceivable that he could catch a break one day with one of his trademark, wild-eyed anthems. On "Songs From Chippy," a side-step from his solo career, Ely obviously was working for the fun, friendship and glory of it on an album destined for critics' Top 10s, but not Billboard's.

Kelly's intelligence, diversity and lack of overt flash have made him a candidate for life on small labels in the American market after an initial run on a major label, A&M. His 1992 album, "Comedy," was released in the States on Orange-based Doctor Dream Records, and the new one is on Vanguard, the revived imprint that was famous during the '60s folk boom.

* What: Joe Ely and Paul Kelly.

* When: Friday, Nov. 11, at 8 p.m., with Keri Getz.

* Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

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