After releasing three Australian albums in the early ’80s, Adelaide’s Paul Kelly put together a quartet called the Coloured Girls (wisely billed as the Messengers in the US; the international dichotomy was later resolved by dumping the original moniker entirely). Originally a 24-song double album back home, Gossip arrived in America as a fifteen-track single disc (the CD has two more). In any case, the LP reveals Kelly to be an expressive if limited singer and an extraordinary songwriter, with an especially keen eye for lyrical detail and a wide-ranging catalogue of musical influences in his stylistic arsenal. Perhaps the best comparison is to early Graham Parker, although Kelly favors folk, blues and some pop in place of Parker’s preference for country and R&B. Gossip has plenty of local color, but the pain at the root of most of these songs is universal.
Under the Sun rocks a bit harder, though its production is equally lean and minimal. What stands out are the songs, beautifully realized stories put to record. Kelly’s got the rare ability to introduce detailed characters and substantial scenarios in three minutes. Check out “To Her Door,” “Don’t Stand So Close to the Window” (or, for that matter, any track here) for proof. (Again, the US and Australian editions differ.)
Kelly recorded his next album in America, working with R.E.M. producer Scott Litt. So Much Water So Close to Home (the title comes from a Raymond Carver short story that Kelly condenses into the album’s most chilling song) finds the singer/guitarist at his most subdued and thoughtful, although “Sweet Guy” and “No You” are two of his most vicious rockers yet. It’s the first album he’s done that’s “produced” in any sense (he even allows a bit of reverb on some of his vocals), and also his least Australian, although “Pigeon/Jundamurra” is based on the true story of an Aboriginal freedom fighter.