As far as singer/songwriters go these days, Douglas Keith isn’t the first name that springs to mind. With his new LP “Pony” we see him step back into the spotlight revealing his unique brand of storytelling . Keith has been a frequent collaborator down through the years, working with a myriad of different artists and musicians such as punk rock band God Hates Kansas and most recently with singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten. In 2009 he started touring with Van Etten because they needed someone to play guitar and bass, since then he has been part of the line-up and when he got a chance he would put together some original material on the side. When he eventually stepped into the recording studio to record some of his ideas he recruited his fellow band mate Zeke Hutchins to play drums and brothers Brad and Phil Cook to play bass and keys. The final piece of the puzzle was to recruit his fellow Van Etten band mate Heathers Woods Broderick to sing backing vocals.
The album opener ‘Harvest Home’ starts off with guitar and vocals but bursts into life with drums that really drive the song forward. Keith describes his nostalgia for his home in the countryside and the good and bad that comes with it. All in all it’s a good opener displaying his folk sensibility but also his appetite for songs with more of a punch. “Long Shot” really lets loose and shows off Keith’s lighter side. Not only does the music showcase this but even more so in the lyrics where he conjures up Springsteen with his tale of working class struggles and his failed attempts at seducing a woman “I’ve been working at the grocery store baby, I’ve been working in the deli”, this tongue and cheek approach along with the instrumentation gives the track a lot of charm and energy, that can’t help but put a smile on your face.
A real stand out track is “Pure Gold in the 70’s”. Unlike many of the tracks is largely centred around synthesizers and keys but evolves to incorporate strings and piano, before erupting with distorted guitars and swelling backing vocals . Keith has a knack for showing both sides of the coin, which makes his stories much more fully fleshed than they otherwise would be. Out of of all the tracks, this is the one that veers towards the rock side of things the most, but overall it still retains the folk elements which keeps it from sounding out of place on this record. “You Can’t Stand To Be Alone” is another track with a rock and roll angle but this time it’s much softer with shimmering guitars and a subtle piano accompaniment which sets the background for the most memorable vocal of the album.
Some of the more traditional acoustic ballads like “I Will Burn For You” and “The Apostles” are songs that you would expect more from a singer/songwriter. The first of these begins with soft plucked guitar chords that support the vocal, but as the song picks up it really doesn’t lead us anywhere interesting as reverbed guitars try to fill a void that still remains hollow. “The Apostles” starts off promising as Keith delivers a passionate vocal reminiscent of Neil Young, with some slide guitar in the background, it wouldn’t be out of place on the “The Heart Of Gold” documentary film which came out back in 2006. Ultimately it gives us a taste of his closest encounter with country on the album but it doesn’t fully deliver, with a chorus which leaves much to be desired.
Overall this album covers a lot of ground, It looked like it could have ended up getting drowned in the sea of folk albums that exist right now, but fortunately though for Keith there is enough here that separates him from the pack. Not only is it his style of song writing that makes him stand but his sharp wit as well . This is a welcome change from a lot of artist nowadays, who seem to approach song writing from a very serious standpoint leaving little room for any sort of humour whatsoever. Keith’s quirks and flaws are all on show as he never holds back, letting us go along for the ride as he reminisces about his past, giving even the most mundane details merit.
The name of the album itself “Pony” (as Keith mentioned in an interview) displays his approach to song writing, “A pony will work, non-stop, until it physically cannot work any more “, this refers to how he constantly writes and works while he is on the road. This seems to spill over to the rest of the band with relentless drums which keep a constant pulse throughout, and keys that add an extra flavour to the mix. They all carry the same sensibility , as all the parts tie in together, each of them adding their own touch without detracting attention away from Keith’s song writing. The albums shortcomings aren’t glaring because of how Keith presents them to us, willing to let us see the cracks instead of trying to cover them up with worn-out clichés.