Various Artists

Before Too Long: Triple J's Tribute to Paul Kelly

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Paul Kelly had been releasing albums for 30 years by 2009, gaining status as Australia's foremost singer/songwriter. In tribute, the Triple J radio network put on a massive show in Melbourne to celebrate his legacy by providing a stage for a number of other artists (largely big in Australia, but unknown in the rest of the Western market) to showcase both their own talents and the songwriting skills of Kelly himself. The concert was recorded and released to acclaim as a double disc, with an additional disc of new material from Kelly. What resulted was a nice lineup of artists from around the stylistic horn, all taking a couple of songs of Kelly's and both reworking them to their own style, and reworking their own style to fit the songs. Despite some messy audio (the vocal mix is surprisingly low and the white noise surprisingly high in the songs), the artists do good work with the material. Megan Washington steals the show early on with powerful vocals that rise above the audio mess in a pop format, but she's followed almost immediately by Paul Dempsey and a tinkling, twinkling country song. The singer/songwriter ethos runs strongly through a series of tracks following Dempsey, but tends to get lost underneath sludgy guitars and drums (which hide the lyrics a bit too well). Clare Bowditch contributes something of a female Springsteen sound, Ozi Batla provides a more nuanced version of Kelly's work, and Missy Higgins provides an excellent (and excellent-sounding) bit of crooning and acoustic piano that brings the sound back to a more intimate nature. A third disc provides new recordings from Kelly himself -- many of the songs are those sung by the tribute artists on the previous discs, but here they're presented in Kelly's own style and with his vocals -- a touch of Bob Dylan, a touch of Simon & Garfunkel perhaps, and a healthy dose of his own swagger. The key here is that the songs regain their lyrical glory, standing out from the music and given their proper respect. Newcomers to Paul Kelly would do well to hear his majesty on his own compositions -- the third disc alone -- without the taint of poor audio and mixed-up musical styles from the tribute concert. Existing fans of Kelly may do better to hear the concert recordings however -- the first two discs -- to get a new angle on what the songwriter has made, independent of his own musical tastes.