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The Cairo Gang - The Corner Man

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Artist: The Cairo Gang

Album: The Corner Man

Label: Empty Cellar

Review date: Oct. 23, 2012

Emmett Kelly has been quite active during the past six years, yet he still retains a certain anonymity. As The Cairo Gang, with all the mystery that such a name implies (taken from murdered anti-IRA British spies), Kelly has recorded two albums that are difficult to track down, each with different groups of musicians. He is better known as a collaborator, playing on record and live with such luminaries as Beth Orton and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, with whom he made the moving 2010 album, The Wonder Show of the World. While Kelly is credited for the music. the album was viewed first and foremost as a Will Oldham production. On The Corner Man, Kelly steps into the limelight. And that light not only clarifies the strength of Kelly’s contribution in his previous collaborations, it reveals Kelly’s strongest offering yet.

Nearly half of the songs on the album start in a similar place to the songs of The Wonder Show, giving The Corner Man a familiar air. Kelly borrows from Oldham a fearless fragility in his singing, and like with the Oldham record, the songs progress as a hesitant discussion between voice and guitar, where each sound pushes the other slightly forward. Though other instruments enter, the foundation of each song doesn’t waver. The opening “Everybody Knows” would have sounded natural on the Bonnie “Prince” Billy album, even down to the beautiful harmonies on the chorus. Kelly’s voice is somewhat plainer and stronger than Oldham’s, and it takes on a transparent beauty, especially when double tracked.

As much as Kelly is known for his guitar — and there is some intricate acoustic fingerpicking and crunchy electric soloing here — he’s not afraid to put his voice right up front. While he tends to open with a hush like Oldham, he can also belt it out, and that’s when he makes his best impression. The windmill chords of “Now You are One of Us” propel his voice into a quieter version of arena rock and album highlight “Put on a Smile” features Kelly’s vocals soaring to the point of screaming.

When he deviates from quaint folky tones, Kelly’s melodies take inspiration from British Invasion rock. “Gone is the Light” reaches a peak in an echoing sprawl that calls to mind the lighter side of Phil Collins. The suite-like “Freak” meanders in its narrative like a Scott Walker woodwind waltz with classical guitar flourishes. No song is of one piece, which makes for both an exciting and difficult listen.

That said, The Corner Man is the most coherent album and least experimental Kelly has recorded as The Cairo Gang. It exploits empty space, stretches melodies almost unrecognizably over time, and exposes Kelly’s voice to its breaking point. Kelly often picks the right moment for his disparate parts to congeal into a memorable melody and a mess of perfectly timed guitar licks. The thrill of these moments, and there are many on this album, owes everything to the anonymity Kelly has retained.

By Scott Branson

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