Springy string melodies greet us in the title track of Irene Kelley’s Benny’s TV Repair much in the same way that they spellbind all who are listening to the gentle thrust of “The Hills Of Home,” self-explanatory “Bluegrass Radio” and adventure-thirsty “Something About A Train Sound.” Kelley’s vocal is rich with humility and humble passions in “Thunderbird,” “Anything To Help You Say Goodbye” and “Faster Than Angels Could Fly,” but to be perfectly honest, it’s wearing just as much emotion on its sleeve in “Walk With Me Today” and the folkish “Highway Back To You.” Whether she’s chipping away at a simple groove in “Cabbage Head” or lusting after a country-style tunefulness that has been absent from the output of her mainstream Nashville counterparts lately in “Out Of Arkansas,” you can bet everything you’ve got that you’re going to get as much of Irene Kelley’s soul in her new album Benny’s TV Repair as an artist can give up inside the four walls of a recording studio, and this alone makes it an interesting listen this December.
Lyrically speaking, I think that Benny’s TV Repair is one of the more deeply poetic and obviously personal LPs Irene Kelley has stuck her name on in the last decade and a half, and while it’s clearly an exercise in intimate confessions (as often as it’s an homage to old school bluegrass integrity, I might add), I don’t believe that it ever crosses the threshold into self-indulgent territory. That’s been a bit of a problem for a lot of the country artists I’ve reviewed in the year 2019, but in this album, Kelley avoids the issue altogether by matching every personal statement with a relatable rhyme and an evocative rhythm subjective to anyone who likes a decent country melody. There’s a lot of Americana in her sound, which gives her a lot of flexibility as a songwriter to speak and play to the emotions that are in her heart, regardless of tempo or tonality. She isn’t holding back from us in “The Hills Of Home,” “Faster Than Angels Could Fly” and “Cabbage Head;” if anything, she’s stepping out of her comfort zone more often than not here.
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If you’ve never heard her work before now, Benny’s TV Repair is a great way of getting to know who Irene Kelley is as an artist, and more importantly, as a gifted singer who can sling a mic with the best in the bluegrass game. “Bluegrass Radio,” “Walk With Me Today” and “Highway Back To You” indeed follow a conventional arrangement scheme that you could easily find among many of the more spirited releases in the bluegrass, country and folk genres out this year, but what sets them apart has much less to do with cosmetics as it does unique, artistic substance (which is something this album has in spades). Kelley isn’t trying to be anyone but herself in this record, and in an age where that isn’t exactly as popular to do as it once was, this is as bold a look as a fan could ask for.