Making an audacious statement like “goin’ down in history, goin’ down in flames,” can mean an act of desperation, going for broke, or just going all in. Ethan Keller’s new disc Goin’ Down In History, Goin’ Down In Flames is the work of a talented singer-songwriter who has gone “all in,” the record where he distills nearly everything from a deep well of influences into that Ethan Keller Sound.
Milwaukee favorite Keller has, actually, been distinctive from the time of 2006’s Face Light, the debut from the former GreenScene funk-rock frontman who introduced himself on that album as a thoughtful, direct and spiritual act, a folkie at heart with a love for rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, funk, rap and Christian music. “James Taylor meets James Brown,” as he will tell you. One Way and Profit were records that I view as excursions into loops, sampling, hip-hop and other fresher forms of music but Keller meanwhile sharpened his skills at crafting hook-filled ditties like “Keep On Lovin'” and “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Soul.” There’s an elemental feel that is pervasive on Goin’ Down In History, Goin’ Down In Flames, with organic, folk-y vibes that hit more 70s touch points than 00s ones. For this modern day version of the classic confessional songwriter, this is music that fits his mind-set.
We earlier described the title cut “Goin’ Down In History, Goin’ Down In Flames “ as a compelling cross between Steely Dan’s “Night by Night” and Eagles “Those Shoes.” “Easy Come, Easy Go” has a lyric that references Santana, a tube-y guitar that’s evoking Randy Bachman and classic rock guitar riffs galore. “All The Time In The World” sports a James Brown beat blended with lap steel and Byrds harmonies. “Home Sweet Highway” is the kind of country rock we nowadays call “Americana” that used to dominate pop radio forty years ago by guys like Marshall Tucker, The Band and Neil Young, and all of these songs are further linked together with an overriding theme of getting away, getting back or just moving from one place to another.
That theme takes on an even more personal tone with “Radio Silence” another rollicking country folk tune about being on the road and performing gigs across the Midwest, longing to get home. “I’ve got just get home to see my wife and child,” he sings.
As the son of a former Catholic priest, themes of religion and spirituality are part and parcel of Keller’s favored topics, most explicitly on the just-voice-and-acoustic guitar ballad “Saints and Sinners.” That song’s by David Pulizzi, but the fragility in Keller’s voice is all that’s needed to make it his own. Keller also refurbishes “Let’s Go For A Ride” from his One Way EP, starting it nearly as bare bones as the original but an organ adds a Otis Readding soul element that was needed in the song, as does the reverberating lo-fi production. “Waste Palace” is a timely statement on the disillusionment with the polarization of politics with Keller’s characteristic clever, winking lines (“wait a minute who you callin’ trash?”) played with the fun-filled Southern boogie of JJ Grey and Mofro fun with a dash of Dylan.
And once again Keller pulls from some of the best area talent for meaningful guest spots (Milwaukee is the town that brought us Hubert Sumlin, Melvin Rhyne and Daryl Stuermer, after all). Jamie Breiwick’s lustrous flugelhorn make the perfect companion to the sparkling guitar on “Glisten” and he joins local blues harp legend Jim Liban on a hopeful, confident “Bounty In My Arms,” the right, upbeat way to end the album. That blues feel by Liban is compounded by the steady bottom end of Nick Moss bassist Matt Wilson, who also laid down a fat, low slab on “Easy Come, Easy Go.” Drummer Tim Russell supplied the beats on half of these dozen songs, with a completely different, appropriate presentation each time. His dynamic drumming on “Learn” even helps to make that one of the best overall tracks on the album.
When all is said and done, though, Keller’s prime strength is the one that’s the hardest for musicians to master, the ability to write memorable songs that play silently in your mind long after listening to the actual audio. He leverages that advantage to the fullest more than any other record he’s made. Goin’ Down is the mark of a musician goin’ up on his already considerable game.
Goin Down In History, Goin Down In Flames is now on sale via Driftless Records. BUY IT HERE.
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