If you are as old as I am, you remember a time when there was nothing as exciting as perusing the bins at a record store, finding an album with an intriguing cover and an artist you’d never heard of, bringing the disc home, putting it on the turntable and absolutely loving what you discovered and listening to it from start to finish over and over again. Remember that? When was the last time you dug a record so much that you listened to the whole thing and did it more than once? (The last time for me was with Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and that was ten years ago!) Well, it’s finally happened again, and the record is Kenny White’s Long List of Priors.
About a month ago, I was hanging out with some of my old music business buddies at a little get together organized by singer Joe Ward. I was sitting next to the legendary Will Lee. At one point he turned to me and said, as if having a revelation, “Do you know Kenny White? His music is amazing!”
I nodded, yes. Here’s the disclaimer. I’ve known Kenny for a long time. We first met in the early 80s through my friend Mason Daring. I had moved to the Boston area after abandoning the big-time hustle of the New York music scene where I was a pretty hot recording engineer. Mason and I co-produced some records and movie scores together up there (Mason has composed all the music for John Sayles’s films.) and Kenny was our first call on keyboards. He was one of a few players who lived up to my snotty New York standards, where I was used to working with the cream of the industry.
Though I had done the reverse commute and was enjoying the country life and getting away from the corned beef and blow, guys like Kenny, singer-songwriter Robin Batteau, and guitarist Jeff Southworth were looking in the other direction. New York was the place to go if you wanted to make some dough. I suggested that they contact some jingle folk I knew down there and then lost touch when I decided to travel around the world for a few years.
Fate dragged me back to NYC and the biz, and when I returned to the scene I was pleased to discover that Kenny and those other Boston guys were making boatloads of money as THE top jingle composer/arrangers, working for Joey Levine at Crushing Music. Their breakthrough was “The Heartbeat of America” campaign for Chevrolet, but they ended up working on everything. There was really no point in trying to make a living making records in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and the money in music for advertising was just too good. That’s where you found most of the real talent those days.
There was no stopping Kenny then. He was working 24/7, and though he had a band and worked with guys like Marc Cohn (Walking in Memphis), he just didn’t really have much time to do his own thing.
Time marched on, and along with so many other creative industries, the vibrant NY music scene died. Presciently, I had gotten out of it some years before and become a shrink. Again, I’d lost contact with Kenny. But a few years ago, we reconnected. Now that he has the time and isn’t scuffling to pay the rent, he’s finally getting around to making his own music.
And better late than never. His most recent record is a revelation. The music has its influences of many of the best singer/songwriters of our time – Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, even Peter Gabriel, to name some – but it is never derivative. Like all great music it harkens back to something remembered from a dream, but you can’t put your finger right on it. I can hear the roots music in it that permeated our New England world. But it is not a nostalgia act. It’s subject matter and attitude are exactly 2016. The melodies are rich, varied, and vividly realized, and always go to the right, but never expected, places. The playing is tasty with a deep feel. White’s jubilant gospel-style piano or heart-breaking ballad playing is never far from the surface. The arrangements are just the right settings for these deeply conceived songs with orchestrations used imaginatively and to kick up an emotion. This heralds back to the age when the album was the art work, and every instrument and musical part was there for a reason.
This is music for grown-ups who listen. Every song on the record is unique, compelling, and a winner. It is made with deep care and impeccable taste. As an old engineer, I also listen for production and sound. The tracks were recorded impeccably by Chris Allen, and the mixer, Ben Wisch, did a terrific job (as always – he’s one of the best).
At the center of this is perhaps what makes this album most astounding of all – the lyrics. This guy is a real poet. And, most amazingly, he’s got something to say.
The album begins with White’s anthem, “A Road Less Traveled,” which sets the album up with White’s world weary, rye, erudite take on life. He’s observant, including of his own deepest conflicts.
“I’m torn between desire and the will to be released/Do I need a locksmith or a priest? I’m just a mess of crossed wires/my reputation’s painted on every wall in town/the past is gonna hunt me down. . .I”ve got a long list of priors”
White shows that he isn’t writing clichés with the second song on the album. Its unlikely hook is, “Che Guevara’s not fashionable anymore,” but he manages to make this strange lyric swing with an evocative track, a luscious string part arranged by Antoine Silverman, and gorgeous, spooky, electric lead by Duke Levine. Wisch’s mixing magic really casts its spell on this one. On one level it is about the alienation that comes from living in a world where we just throw out the stuff we thought we believed in.
Check out the individual take he brings to the break up song in, “Another Bell Unanswered:”
“Now the grey geese call, and winter finds it’s voice/and the leaves will fall as if they had a choice/just another bell unanswered, another unplayed song/if our fate was in the heavens/this time the heavens got it wrong.”
White is also a social critic as we learn on the song, “Cyberspace.” Somehow, he finds wisdom in a Googling jag. White’s vocal is a standout on this rollicking track, where the joyful music jolts in contrast to the brilliantly jaded lyrics.
I always knew that Kenny was musical, but I had no idea that he had such a way with words. Perhaps my favorite lyric comes from the short trip across the Hudson River at dusk with a moment of love – an apt metaphor for our lives.
“Through window panes as thin as prayer/you can hear the peals of thunder/I’ve spent hours sitting there/confusing love with hunger. . .”
The exuberant track, “Glad Handed,” which features a guest vocal by Peter Wolf, who adds a masterful rock and roll snarl to the proceedings, is about one of my favorite subjects: why show biz sucks. White nails it. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention – Kenny achieves one of the hardest things in music – he’s funny.
The more I listen to this record the more I feel blessed to know about it. That last song, “Glad Handed?” What it’s really about is that it is virtually impossible for an artist of Kenny’s caliber and age to get “access” to the powers that be that could provide him with the widest exposure. No matter that almost anyone who hears this guy loves him, he’s just too good and too old. That lack of media buzz makes it hard for people to find him, amongst all the noise.
But who cares about the bullshit part of the biz? The beautiful thing, for me, another old guy who still tries to be creative, is to see someone my age still doing it, and doing it really fucking well. As Kenny puts it,
“but if you want to make your mark, get busy/you believe it, then you gotta take a stand/you’re sitting on the wrong side of sixty/and your hourglass is running out of sand”
Though the recognition would be nice, by the time you’re sitting on our mountain top, It’s no longer about fame or the biggest audience. Kenny has made a timeless record, and that’s the real way he’s made his mark. Still, even more so, for this reason, he deserves to be heard.