· By Mattias Forsgren
The Austin-based singer-songwriter Sean Keel, release his raw, starkly evocative debut record, A Dry Scary Blue will is released December 1
“The whole thing was a freak accident,” Sean Keel says of the unlikely set of circumstances that led to the release of the Austin-based singer-songwriter’s raw, starkly evocative record, A Dry Scary Blue, with the independent Stockholm-based label, Icons Creating Evil Art. “I’ve got four records on Bandcamp; basically no one has listened to any of them; and now I’m putting one out with a record company. An actual record company! From Sweden!”
A Dry Scary Blue introduces a distinctive, wholly individual singer-songwriter who, despite living in a legendary roots-music mecca, has honed his craft far from the public eye. Keel’s raw, evocative compositions invoke a long and honored tradition of iconoclastic, emotionally complex Texas songwriters, while never sounding remotely like anyone else. A Dry Scary Blue is a series of story songs set in the bent-down beauty of Keel’s beloved Texas hill country, or the Minnesota farmland of his youth, and suffused throughout by the slow ache of beautiful things fading away. They’re matched by spare, rough-edged arrangements that drive his lyrics home. Keel’s words have genuine power. In this business exaggeration is the norm. It is difficult to overstate the beauty of these songs.
From Corn Palace:
“Plastic bags are catching air. They’re dancing. Reaching wings white as wedding gowns. Haven’t known for years where you are. I’m not asking. Revival must be over. The tents are coming down”
From Hill of Three Oaks:
“Lights along the drive one by one come alive. We say things we don’t need to say. There’s fog or there’s smoke ‘round the Hill of Three Oaks. Their shadows, an auction of slaves”
From Near that Far:
“How ‘bout we siphon all the gas out of that backhoe. Paint our names in fire on the street. You ever close your eyes and just pretend, whoever you’re with, is me?”
This is a tiny representative sample of the lyrics. Throw a dart at this record, you’ll hit something that bleeds. These are some of Keel’s words. Then there is his voice. At once warm and worn, a smoky campfire. it might remind you of Neil Young, or Tom Waits, but it’s neither. It’s clear he is not copying anyone. It is unlikely anyone will successfully copy him.
Keel is not your ordinary outsider. Nearly 60, the long-time University of Texas professor, is well-known in the world of research mathematics. But this record will be his first blip on the pop-culture radar. He has written a sword and sorcery novel, lots of short stories and poetry. He’s made three folk/jazz records with his family band, Bill the Pony, and one album of “super bare-bones folk-country music.” All self released, and all in complete obscurity. On the suggestion of a music friend he decided to have his latest record produced by a professional. Surprised by the results, he sent the first mix of the first song to Icons Creating Evil Art, hoping they would post it on their Youtube channel (The 'Discovered by ICEA' series). By happy chance, the label’s founder and owner was the one who listened. Impressed, and in an odd mood, he decided it was time to act on his long brewing scheme of giving a promotional push to a complete unknown. The release of A Dry Scary Blue will be the first step in the experiment.
The producer is the multi-talented Gabriel Rhodes. The son of famed singer Kimmie Rhodes and step-son of the influential DJ Joe Gracey, Gabe is alt-country royalty, having worked with a wide assortment of artists including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Emmylou Harris.
“Gabe’s pretty amazing,” Keel notes. “I had all the songs written before we ever met. I recorded scratch guitar tracks and then vocal for each on garage band and sent them to Gabe, to do with them whatever he thought would be cool. I was really surprised by the results. What Gabe makes, his best stuff, they are musical movies. He got what was going on in my songs, and he made musical movies about them. Its a really cool collaboration. We are both really proud of the record. In part because it’s nothing like anything either of us would do on our own.”
What does Keel hope will come from this collaboration, with Rhodes, and Icons Creating Evil Art? “The world is such a huge place. If you appeal to even the tiniest slice of people, that is still a huge number. This music is not for everyone. I’m positive most people aren’t gonna like it. But I’m pretty sure there are loads of people out there that would. The test I like to give: If someone likes both Townes van Zandt and Tom Waits. I know most people don’t. But if they do, then it’s a near certainty that they are going to appreciate what we’ve got. “
Sean Keel's debut 'A Dry Scary Blue' is released December 1 via Icons Creating Evil Art
A Dry Scary Blue is Austin-based math professor and troubadour Sean Keel’s debut commercial release, a collection of raw, starkly evocative emotionally complex songs in the Townes van Zandt tradition. The record, a collaboration with multi-talented producer Gabriel Rhodes, might remind you a little of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, even Flannery O'Connor; but really, if you've heard anything that punches at this weight and sounds a whole lot like it, it probably means someone more mainstream (a very easy standard) had the good luck to hear Keel and the good sense to rip him off.