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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1275

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Kenny White: Uninvited Guest
by George Graham

(MVP 001 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/27/2002)

The music world is full of talented, prolific and busy artists who, though they have risen to a point of being much in-demand, remain largely behind the scenes, either as a side-person, arranger, producer or the like. Some musicians are happy in that role avoiding the limelight, and for others such a career can in fact be more lucrative and secure than the vagaries of trying to become a star on one's own right. For time to time, some of these artists will step out with their own recordings, and the results can range from scatter-shot, as the player tries to showcase his versatility, to very impressive. This week we have a good example of the latter, a fine album from Kenny White, one of those perennial behind-the-scenes musicians whose work has put him in contact with a great number of well-known artists, and whose music has been heard by millions without their knowing his name. Kenny White's new CD, on which he assumes the role of singer-songwriter, is called Uninvited Guest.

Kenny White's musical career is an interesting one. A New York native, White spent a good number of years in the Boston area before returning to New York. He has worked as a studio musician on piano, and composed hundreds of jingles for radio and TV commercials. Producing those jingles brought him together with numerous well-known performers, including Linda Ronstadt, Dwight Yoakam, Al Jarreau and Gladys Knight, to name a few. He has also worked as a film composer, scoring such productions as "Message in a Bottle" and "Forces of Nature," as well as the music for four John Sayles films. He has also worked as a record producer for such artists as Peter Wolf, formerly of the J. Geils Band, Marc Cohn, and Shawn Colvin, who all return the favor and appear on White's CD. He has also worked as a studio pianist on sessions with Keith Richards, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Richard Shindell and Cheryl Wheeler.

So with that kind of experience, Uninvited Guest is hardly the work of a novice. It's a sophisticated but often understated recording of intelligent songs performed in a generally sparse musical setting, though the arrangements can run from jazzy to Sixties rock influenced to almost classical. While his voice is not particularly distinctive, White sings in an honest, appealing style that can sometimes hint at Randy Newman with a wider range. A good portion of his songs on the CD tend toward the sad in mood, often dealing with breaking up or missing one's significant other.

He is joined on the CD by some other ubiquitous first-call studio musicians such as guitarist Duke Levine, known for his work on many a singer-songwriter recording, especially those of Shawn Colvin, drummer Shawn Pelton, bassist Paul Ossola, who is heard more on acoustic bass than electric on the CD, and guitarist Riley McMahon, who co-produced the recording with White. In addition to Shawn Colvin and Marc Cohn who sing backing vocals, and Peter Wolf on harmonica, up-and-coming singer-songwriter Amy Fairchild lednds her supporting backing vocals.

Uninvited Guest is wide-ranging in sound while remaining a coherent recording. The musicianship is first-rate and the record is full of interesting musical, arrangement and even lyrical ideas. And while Shawn Pelton does some of those trendy lo-fi drum loops that in five years everybody will regret as a dead fad, the rest of the CD is thoroughly tasteful, and has the timeless quality that marks the best singer-songwriter records.

The title song Uninvited Guest opens the CD with some Beatles influence. It typifies White's combination of the appealing music and downcast lyrics. <<>>

Cold Winter Wind is also decidedly lugubrious in lyrical outlook, while its musical backing is quite appealing with the atmospheric sound of Duke Levine's guitar, and the White's own retro electric piano. <<>> Peter Wolf makes an appearance on harmonica. <<>>

Kenny White shows another musical facet on The Beautiful Changes that weaves the jazzy ambience of Charlie Parker into the lyric's story-line while the arrangement provides the appropriate setting, though with an unusual twist of a steel guitar. <<>>

The CD takes a surprising excursion into country influence on the song One Step Up that has the kind of "I miss you since we broke up" lyrics that would fit well into the country idiom. <<>>

Also hinting at the music of the Fab Four is the string arrangement on the song Every Time You Walk Away, which is also adorned with little touches like backwards guitar. The track is a musical highlight, though the lyrics are obviously bittersweet. <<>>

The most unusual song on the album is In My Recurring Dream which is a series of odd vignettes apparently out of dreams, or maybe closer to nightmares. <<>>

Less about parting and more upbeat in mood is the bluesy Don't Go Out Tonight. Duke Levine's gritty electric guitar work provides a nice foil to the mostly acoustic setting, including White's own acoustic guitar. <<>>

The song with a guest appearance by Shawn Colvin is In Our Hands. It's another sad song of the breakup of an affair or a marriage. White also did the string arrangement. <<>>

The CD closes with another piece with non-rock instrumentation. Ready to Leave All This Behind features cellos and clarinets joining White's piano. It's another song with downcast lyrics, though in this case it's a combination of regret and resolve to reform behavior. <<>>

Kenny White, with his long background as a supporting musician and composer for hire, brings his extensive experience and contacts with well-known people to bear in his outstanding new independently-released recording Uninvited Guest. White is an engaging, intelligent songwriter with an appealingly honest vocal style, and wide-ranging musical interests which show themselves in the various influences that come together on this multifaceted opus. About the only drawback for some might be the preponderance of sad lyrics. Perhaps White was going through a breakup when he was writing material for the CD, providing the inspiration for so many songs of parting. But each song has something worthwhile to offer, and White often adds an interesting perspective.

Our sound quality grade is close to an "A." While the dynamic range might have been wider through less compression, the recording offers a warm intimate sound, which with the exception of the drum loops, is free from gimmicks. The acoustic bass is especially well-recorded, and White's vocals come across with clarity. Interestingly, not less than seven different recording and mix engineers worked on the various tracks.

Kenny White may be a well-respected behind-the-scenes figure among people in the music business, but Uninvited Guest will, with any luck, bring this versatile composer and performer to wider audiences.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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