Like a lot of people, Nora Kelly ended up with with a lot of time on their hands during the pandemic lockdown. For the alt-rock/punk musician who’d previously released a string of digital singles and an album with the band Dishpit, it was a time for thought and an eventual re-invention. Meeting with friends on the street and playing country music covers during Montreal curfews led to the formation of an eponymously named outfit – an act whose debut release ‘Perfect Pig’ showcases Kelly’s alt-country talents as if channelling bits of the Neko Case catalogue, combined with a love of the DIY approach of early Giant Sand.
‘Right Now’ is a number that not only advertises the band’s more “typical” sound – mixing an obvious country vocal with stripped down roots rock – but it really benefits from a semi lo-fi production style that really allows the music to breathe. Throughout the song, Nora’s voice calls very naturally over an arrangement that occasionally sounds as if its bleeding in from another room. A great piano line supplies the heart; occasional banjo fills space, and a walking bassline provides a huge amount of warmth on a tune that sometimes feels a little shy in offering big hooks. Even if it sometimes sounds like the kind of alt-country tune that’s been heard a dozen times over, Nora and the band manage to make the tried and tested arrangement seem vital, and regardless of any immediacy (or not), its lilting melody combined with a great vocal will ensure that fans of the style will love it in a heartbeat.
Another tune placing Kelly’s voice at the forefront, ‘Bisbee’ occasionally sounds like a callback to the early folk of Dar Williams and the folk/country blend of Lucy Kaplansky, but between some fine harmonies, a tastefully applied steel guitar crying in the rear and a terrific sounding acoustic guitar being strummed in an unfussy manner, its relative simplicity is very appealing. In many ways, the almost polished demo feel of the performance makes it one of the EP’s less interesting tunes, but in time, its classic singer songwriter heart shines through. The way ‘Change My Mind’ mixes a slightly inebriated sounding riff with a huge curling vocal calls to mind The Rolling Stones’ country pastiches of the late 70s. Fans of the style, though, might spot closer associations with alt-country pioneer Jay Farrar, especially in the way steel guitar is used to underscore a riff that occasionally threatens to burst into something more of a roots rock persuasion. The slightly fuzzy electric guitar gives the band some oomph – a more obvious overhang from Kelly’s musical past – but as before, it’s Nora’s clear vocal that’s presented as a main focus. …And it’s a voice that oozes a real confidence, whether curling itself around another semi-personal narrative or harmonising with pianist Rachel Silverstein. It’s one of those tracks that, no matter which way you slice it, shows this as a band with potential.
On first listen, ‘Loving Comes Easily To Me’ veers far to close to being an old school, back porch hoe-down, complete with affected vocal. Closer inspection uncovers a track that’s actually really spirited; a performance with tight but loose style that has great appeal. Here, the interest comes not from the vocal – despite the strident lead being complimented by another excellent harmony – but from the way the bluegrass inflected music conveys a stripped back yet still busy sound. A rattling snare drum gives the piece a real energy, and the way banjo is used to weave in an out of a taut rhythm further supplied by a punchy bass really captures a strong musical unit. Chosen as the lead single, the EP’s standout cut ‘Hymn For The Agnostics’ kicks off with a semi-bluesy guitar, giving off a heavy twang that’s a little different. As the tune gathers momentum – albeit very slowly – the marriage of retro guitar work and warm basslines calls to mind a deep cut from the legendary Chris Isaak, and the subtle use of retro organ brings a very late 60s/early 70s influence that isn’t especially exploited on the other tunes. As expected, Nora sings with confidence and clarity; her crying voice really taps into a semi-haunting melody and questioning lyrics. It’s the kind of track that really benefits from repeated listening too; its wavering desert rock ghostliness offers some of the finest Americana – a tune that’s pretty much timeless.
In closing, ‘The Story of Nora & Sarah’ takes on more of a country rock stomp, applying a heavier drum and fiddle to a crunchy arrangement where a louder guitar collides with a really enthused vocal. Nora recounts the story of a relationship between two girls in search of “new stomping grounds” whereupon, arriving in Montreal, they move into a flat, meet boys, and build a new life – all really positive and forward looking. Although it’s a piece where the storytelling is key, it doesn’t draw attention away from some great musical flourishes: deep toms drop between strong vocal lines in a very 70s fashion; soaring violin notes underscore the vocal and strong beats, and linking everything, a ringing guitar latches onto some grubby Americana in a way that gives the tune extra clout. It doesn’t matter which way you look at it – it’s all good.
This EP somehow manages to feel coherent despite being rather varied, but it’s clear that this band’s confidence plays a massive part in making everything work. There are occasional tendencies to over-rely on an a heavy twang and curl of a voice that won’t suit everyone, but when taking elements of old style country (a style previously championed by Justine’s Black Threads) and bringing those into the present, it’s obvious that the Nora Kelly Band are really sharp. With tracks that can be cherry picked for late night listening (‘Right Now’, especially) or for quirky playlists on long car journeys (‘The Story of Nora & Sarah’), it also feels like a release that’ll fit different moods and eventually strike a chord with alt-country/Americana fans everywhere. Recommended.