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Rodd Keith - Saucers in the Sky

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Artist: Rodd Keith

Album: Saucers in the Sky

Label: Roaratorio

Review date: Dec. 28, 2005

First, the back story: Rodney Keith Eskelin (also known as Rod Rogers and Rodd Keith) was born in 1937 and raised in Michigan. He fathered two children (including improv saxophonist Ellery Eskelin), wound up in Southern California, took lots of drugs, and died in 1974 when he either fell or jumped from a highway overpass. In between, he made a gazillion recordings as a hired gun for a song-poem company.

Most song-poem companies were/are borderline scams. They took out ads asking non-professionals to send in lyrics that would then, for a fee, be set to music by professionals. Usually, the poets would be led to believe that their song was being taken seriously by the company (it wasn’t) and had some chance of becoming a hit (it didn’t). Instead, exhausted session musicians would churn out music and performances with all the efficiency and artistry of assembly-line employees. Often, the contrast between the jaded professionalism of the musicians and the extreme amateurism of the lyrics can make song-poems so hilariously weird and bad that they’re downright sublime – check out the fine Off the Charts documentary to hear some especially excellent examples, like Caglar Juan Singletary’s “Non-Violent Taekwondo Troopers” and Gene Marshall’s “Jimmy Carter Says ‘Yes’”.

Among his song-poet session contemporaries, though, Rodd Keith stands out. Whereas many song-poem collections emphasize the genre’s wackiness, both Saucers in the Sky and another Keith compilation, I Died Today on Tzadik, rein in the silliness somewhat while presenting evidence that Keith was a talented and imaginative songwriter. Sure, some of these songs are funny – even when song-poets weren’t writing clearly daffy lyrics like “A hundred years, a long time ago / Miners were searching for a lost vein of gold / Time passed by, they journeyed above / Now I hear them sing, as I search for my lost vein of love” (“Lost Vein of Love”), they were often deaf to the sorts of phrasing and syllable patterns that popular music typically requires.

But beyond the weird lyrics, many of the songs on Saucers in the Sky are just wonderful pop songs, with great melodies and strange, unexpected chord progressions. The title track is a treasure, with a lovely, breezy pop melody, doo-be-doo backing vocals, and a bizarre lyric about space travel. “Go Go Girlie,” with its frivolous lyrics, intricately bouncy hook, and sped-up backing vocals, almost sounds like it could have come from the studio of pre-Beatles pop icon Joe Meek. Perhaps because song-poets were often able to request that their poem be set to music in a particular genre, Saucers in the Sky is all over the place stylistically. While Keith is convincing throughout (and often a surprisingly virtuosic songwriter), he’s most fun on the many up-tempo numbers here.

In the end, it’s hard to get a clear picture of Keith's musical world. He was a ‘60s Bob Pollard – he made so many songs that it’s tough to determine much about him from only fifty or so, which is about how many are available on Saucers in the Sky and I Died Today. In comparison to most other song-poems I’ve heard, however, Keith’s really stand out. Whereas most song-poems sound like the rush jobs they usually were, Keith’s are surprisingly detailed, with weird production ideas, verses and choruses that actually make sense together, and good performances. The songs on Saucers in the Sky usually work as pop songs, not curiosities.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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