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Kenny White: Long List of Priors
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/2/2016)
While the public tends to be attracted to the rock stars of the world, the music business is full of people who maintain a much lower-profile career, and often enjoy it that way. But they can still end up being influential among other artists and savvy fans. This week we have the latest album by an outstanding veteran artist who despite 40 years on the music scene and millions of people hearing his work, still has relatively little name recognition. It’s singer-songwriter Kenny White, whose recording, his first in five years, is called, perhaps appropriately, Long List of Priors.
Kenny White was born in New York City and grew up in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He launched his music career in the 1970s, working as a sideman, playing keyboards for such people as Jonathan Edwards and Livingston Taylor. From there, most of his work was away from the limelight, or at least his name was not well known outside the music business. But he became an in-demand as a producer, composer and arranger, spending some 18 years being a busy artist creating music for commercials and soundtracks, including the Chevrolet “Heartbeat of America” campaign and many ads for Coca Cola. In that capacity, he was able to call on numerous well-known artists to add their talents to those well-funded commercials, people like Linda Ronstadt, Mavis Staples, Ricky Skaggs and Gladys Knight. According to his web biography, whenever he could pull himself away from the demands of working in the studio, he would take the opportunity to tour and work with other artists such as Mark Cohn, and Cheryl Wheeler and most notably Judy Collins.
In 2001, White decided to step out to do music under his own name and made his debut album Uninvited Guest. White writes on his website, in talking about his career in the ad business, that the commercial jingles demand a quick, memorable, repetitive melody and lyrical phrase. On his solo albums, White takes virtually the opposite approach, often with elaborate musically sophisticated songs, with little repetition and often paragraphs of lyrics. And through his words, White is often the storyteller and occasional commentator the human condition. In same ways, one can draw a parallel to Randy Newman, another sophisticated, lyrically witty pianist singer-songwriter who has had great success creating music for others on soundtracks.
Kenny White’s new release Long List of Priors, his first in close to six years, continues his appealing, classy songwriting with tasteful, piano-based accompaniment. The same rhythm section appears on this album as did his last, with guitarist Duke Levine, bassist Marty Ballou and drummer Shawn Pelton. He also calls on some well-known people to appear as guest vocalists, including David Crosby, Peter Wolf, of the J. Geils band, Amy Helm, Levin Helm’s daughter of the band Ollabelle, and acclaimed jazz vocalist Catherine Russell. And there are some very nice, tasteful string and horn arrangements. It’s a generous album, running 58 minutes with 13 songs that run that gamut from being witty to philosophical to some songs about less-than optimal personal relationships. He often reflects on life and the passing of time.
Leading off is A Road Less Traveled which takes a slightly jaundiced view of life as an analogy of being on hold on the phone. The sound hints at bluegrass, and David Crosby is the backing vocalist. <<>>
One of the more interesting sets of lyrics comes on the song called Che Guevera, about how the once fashionable image of the South American revolutionary has fallen out of style, using that presumably as a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of popular culture. <<>>
Another great song of social commentary is Cyberspace, which was obviously written by someone of a certain generation, lamenting the on-line world. It’s a remarkably wordy song which still manages to seem pithy in its numerous contentions. <<>>
White can do some very classy ballads. One is The Other Shore, which is a song of departure. It features a nice chamber ensemble as the accompaniment. <<>>
One the other hand, the rockiest tune on the album is one called Glad-Handed, on which Peter Wolf shares the vocal spotlight with White. It’s another song with a somewhat jaundiced view of the world. <<>>
West L.A. has a kind of theatrical quality to its arrangement with the orchestrations, and clever Tin Pan Alley style lyrics. <<>>
White’s most striking social commentary on the album comes on a song called Charleston, about the mass gunning down of African American parishioners in a Charleston church. Ada Dyer shares the vocal with White. <<>>
4000 Reasons to Run is another of White’s very wordy songs, reminiscent of early Bob Dylan, though with an almost jig-like quality to the music. <<>>
Long List of Priors, the new release by veteran singer-songwriter Kenny White, who has had long-time career as an active musician behind the scenes, is another fine album that does everything right. The songs are gems lyrically while the compositions and arrangements are sophisticated and very tasteful. It’s very much the opposite of what White did for years, writing commercial jingles. He touches on a number of topics, often writing from the standpoint of someone who has been around the block a few times, so to speak. And though the mood is usually optimistic, there are the occasional notes of cynicism, which are usually handled with some wit, though he can get serious when he wants to. His production skills are also much in evidence with the excellent musicians, some well-known, whom he recruited for the album.
Our grade for sound quality is an “A.” The sound is clean, warm and free from studio gimmicks. It sounds like real people playing real music, with the studio process not at all intrusive. The dynamic range, how the recording allows the music to ebb and flow in volume, is also noticeably better than the contemporary average for pop recordings.
Folk style, guitar-based singer-songwriters are usually the norm for the genre. Pianist, singer-songwriter Kenny White draws on his experience of writing for others and in a visual medium to create an all-around fine album.
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