John Paul Keith: “The Man That Time Forgot”
John Paul Keith is just the kind of singer/songwriter I tend to find tedious and boring, but I’ll be damned if his new The Man That Time Forgot isn’t an old-school charmer that’s won me over in a big way. I’ll be honest: There’s little about the man to suggest that he’s much more than a natty, well-groomed revivalist, a hipster who cheerfully pretends like the last forty years of pop music never happened. There isn’t a lick or a melody here that doesn’t sound like it was copped from the 1950s or early 60s, and nothing about Keith’s music to suggest that he’s interested in anything beyond dogged recreation of golden age sounds and styles. Despite it all, the record sinks its hooks in early and leaves them in long after the thing stops playing, and Keith, while not exactly an original, is at the very least an ace singer, songwriter, and guitarist who fills these songs with big hooks and a lot of love.
To some extent, it’s a simple matter of his good taste, which goes a long way in records like this. The press release for the album casually drops references to the artist’s love of Chuck Berry and B.B. King, and though his name is a composite of two Beatles and a Stone, his music studiously avoids these sounds in favor of vintage country and early Sun Records rock and roll; nothing wrong with the Beatles or Stones, of course, but you have to respect a young guy whose tastes are so old-school that they largely write Lennon/McCartney out of the equation, and indeed, even when his songs ape the British Invasion, Keith seems more interested in the ramshackle sounds of youthful exuberance than in, say, anything that came after Rubber Soul.
What his good taste gets at, I think, is that John Paul Keith understands what makes this material resonate, and he’s careful to not simply mimic the details but to really nail what’s at the heart of this music. To that end, The Man That Time Forgot is a record that celebrates the innocence of garage rock, the naked emotion of country, and the wide-eyed optimism of pre-Beatles rock and roll. It is entirely unpretentious; as a lyricist Keith shows zero interest in writing serious songs about politics or spirituality, for instance, but instead focuses on timeless expressions of romance, a good-natured song or two about booze and life on the road, and completely non-indulgent pop songs about writing pop songs, something that’s really pretty tricky to pull off, at least without sounding completely self-absorbed.
And that’s really his secret; frankly, these are all just ace pop songs with great hooks, songs so warm that they instantly sound like they’re vintage. Fat Possum house producer Bruce Watson worked with Keith on this one, as did his One Four Fives backing band, and the sound of the record is warm and significantly cleaner and less scruffy than Keith’s last outing, yet it’s no less energetic or appealingly ramshackle because of it. It’s a great platform for Keith’s infectious and cheerfully classicist songwriting.
And oh, what songs! Any of these dozen tracks (most of which hit at just over two minutes) could be mistaken as a jukebox staple– albeit, jukeboxes in places ranging from honky tonks to old-timey diners. Keith’s greatest gift is his understanding of the elegant, understated power of simplicity. “You Devil You” begins with a gently rollicking acoustic guitar that could be mistaken for an old teenybopper hit– Ricky Nelson, maybe– before a jaunty piano figure comes in. Keith has a great ear for simple lines that sound timeless: “It’s not from above/ this hell of a love,” is the kind of turn of phrase that contemporary Nashville songwriters would be working toward, were they not so preoccupied with forcing their cornpone humor and “Real America” sentimentality down our throats. That song leads nicely into the basic, British Invasion vamp of “Anyone Can Do It”– sounding a bit like The Who at their most innocent and R&B-influenced. “I Think I Fell in Love Today” combines a teenybopper lyric, a Roy Orbison melody, and a farfisa organ. “Dry County” is a boisterous little rockabilly tune, and it’s not really about the booze so much as it is a celebration of good times and innocent teenage rebellion. “Somebody Ought to Write a Song About You,” meanwhile, is a perfect title for a perfectly timeless rock and roll ballad.
But everything here hits, and I suspect that it does so partly because Keith is simply an impeccable songwriter and performer, but partly because he believes in this stuff. There’s no artifice here, nothing to suggest that these vintage clothes are anything but his authentic wardrobe. He makes this music because this is the music he genuinely likes, and he has no interest in conceding to modern tastes. The title track is a spot-on country song with a lyric that could well be a statement of purpose: “I’m an old familiar tune/ that you used to hum/ Set your watch back, baby/ when you see me come.” But of course, time hasn’t truly forgotten these sounds and styles; there’s nothing here that doesn’t resonate now just as strongly as it would have half a century ago.