Revel In Our Otherness: Musical Free association by Mike Keneally and Beer For Dolphins
©by Chris Vreeland
The name Mike Keneally first entered my consciousness through a small thank you on the back of an XTC record. Over the years, the name just kept cropping up, like a drumbeat growing slowly but persistently louder in the far-off distance.
Before I knew who he was, or even what he did, I began to suspect that he was something big, just by who he'd been associated with. Finally, in 2000, I had something concrete. Mike Keneally had collaborated with Kevin Gilbert in the one-off Yes tribute project called Stanley Snail, and I had acquired the song, a stunning rendition of Siberian Khatru, on a bootleg of Gilbert rarities. I still didn't know if Keneally was a drummer, a bass player, or what. Finally, prodded by a barrage of postings on Chalkhills, (all of them raving, and one of the most strident from widely respected uber-hillian Harrison Sherwood) I made that bold leap into the unknown: a web search.
It's funny when in life, curiosity finally tips the balance thats teetered unmolested for years, and suddenly, the unknown becomes clear so easily. Typing Mike Keneally in a Google search window did this on one level, but the music on Dancing did this in a whole separate way. In two minutes, I was ordering a disk from Mikes website-- hes independent and hawks all his goods himself-- and was on my way to learning who he was. Reading his history, however, didnt prepare me for the aural assault of the phantasmagoric panopticon that arrived in my mailbox 6 days later.
For someone who didnt know any of Keneallys music, Dancing was the perfect jumping-off point. Stylistically, it runs the gamut, but its a melodic, and song-oriented record. Its primarily a rock album, but to try to shoehorn it into Progressive-Rock or Jazz-Rock holes would not even begin to reach the point of what Dancing is about. It is more than anything, a joyous celebration of all that is good and right about music. Mike Keneally is one of those rare people who are so obviously doing what they were put on Earth to do, and from the sounds of things, he's having the time of his life.
The album starts off on a pop-y enough note, with a rather silly but still quite witty lyric about moving to Japan set to a very very happy, almost circusy electric guitar based rock song, with some very choice and sparing horn arrangements thrown in. The middle section is a staggering solo, with the guitar doubled note for note on a xylophone. (It is also at this point that Keneallys inescapable Zappa influences begin to shine through). The second song is also normal enough, and is pretty much three piece straight ahead 4/4 rock. Albeit, a very, very good straight ahead rock song.
But at the third track, the album veers abruptly, and begins a wild careening across the musical spectrum unlike anything I'd heard before. Acapella, acoustic guitar, acoustic piano (evidently Keneallys first instrument) free form Bitches Brew style Jazz noodling, and even a Carpenters-styled tribute, and an unironic, heartfelt one at that. But the album really shines on the bigger ensemble songs, which show the true strengths of Beer For Dolphins as a cohesive unit. These guys and girl are all simply monsters. Individually, they stand at the top of their respective heaps, and together, they form one of the best Bands, with a capital B, thats recording today. Backwards Deb, We'll be Right Back, Pretty Enough for Girls, Taster, The Mystery Music, and the final cut, a mindstomping fanfare called Kedigree are the standouts, to me. But at 79 minutes and 53 seconds ( ! ) there's not a bad note on the thing.
Keneally is a god given talent, who is at the top of his form with this album. The few extended guitar solos that he recorded for this record are amongst rocks finest. If I was to attempt to describe his style in one sentence, it would be Imagine Stevie Ray Vaughan, if he had been born and raised in L.A. instead of Dallas, and had grown up listening to Todd Rundgren, and Frank Zappa instead of blues. A great quantity of his personality shows through in this record, and one immediately gets the feeling that he's a very happy and normal kind of person, with an ever-questioning spirit, and a true love of life. Its that basic joy that bubbles, and rumbles, out from between the ones and zeros on this CD that make the whole album the piece of beauty that it is.
I wouldn't give it a perfect rating if it wasn't also a quality recording. This album is perfect. Very evenly mixed, which is nice, because you can turn it up real loud, and this is one album where loud is good. The guitar solos cut without piercing, and even with twenty different things going on at once, you can hear it all. Very up front, and in your face, though still nice and dynamic, with the reverb used only judiciously. Simply one of musics finest moments. A truly fine piece of art.