We’ve used this space for bringing telling the world about the recorded accomplishments of artists both popular and obscure, and for us, at least, the talented ones who haven’t emerged yet are usually the ones that are most fun to write about. With those types, there’s a greater chance you’re telling the story to people who hadn’t heard it before and nothing can make a music critic glow with pride if said artist since hits the big time so he can say “See? I told ya’ so.” I’ve been on this site puffing musicians who deserve a wider audience for almost four years, now; inevitably, I’m going to strike gold. And the most likely candidate for that big breakthrough is Ethan Keller.
Keller first got my attention back in ’07, not long after the Milwaukee-based singer, songwriter and guitarist released his self-made debut album. In ’08, Keller rewarded his devoted fans with , that took further steps forward in his artistic development. I’d still be listening to it all the time if my hip-minded dad would just freakin’ give me back the copy I loaned him. But this Friday, April 23, Ethan returns with his second long player that he calls Profit.
Profit is where I could very well finally cash in on one of my many unfulfilled “I told ya’ so’s.” It’s not because Keller has by now virtually perfected his blend of rock, jazz, funk and hip-hop. It’s not because that despite his awareness and embrace of contemporary trends, he still makes music by hand. It’s not even because that for Profit, he brought in two-time Grammy winner Ted Greenberg (G. Love, Chaka Khan, Ben Harper) to produce it. No, it’s because of all of those things.
Coming from a good Catholic household (his father is an ordained priest and his mother a former nun), Keller is a deeply spiritual being and his composing pen outs his spirituality on his sleeve, conveying wisdom and perceptiveness beyond his years, regardless of whether he’s singing it or rapping it. Meanwhile his melodies possess ear-grabbing hooks that sound natural, not contrived. One song from Profit that captures these good things about his music is the good-time rockin’ ditty “Rock And Roll Will Save Your Soul.”
This was one of those songs that was banged out in a matter of minutes. Keller saw the song’s title printed on a t-shirt with he describes as “a skull or something similarly morbid” and decided to turn the phrase into one from the perspective of Jesus, who he sees as egging him on to keep on rockin’ because music is the universal tongue, the way to spread the message. In Greenberg’s hands, the music came out crunchier in a Black Crowes kind of way. The vintage electric piano, the organ adding a soulful mood and the funky bass line combined with Keller’s cutting blues-rock guitar would have made a great hit for Lenny Kravitz back in his heyday. But Keller adds his own flavor to the retro-rocker by singing the verses in hip-hop cadence that bridges generations of listeners while sending a message of soul redemption that spans millenniums.
So, here’s a chance to get ahead of the wave rolling out of southern Wisconsin and order up Profit before even Pitchfork finds out about it and order up a copy. Come to think of it, I better get an extra copy myself to send to Dad so I can hang on to mine.