Record Review 

Like the indistinct, silhouetted picture that adorns both covers of his ninth American release, Australian singer/songwriter Paul Kelly has hovered in the shadows in the States. An auditorium-filling, multi-platinum-selling celebrity in his homeland for more than two decades, Kelly has been favorably compared to such American icons as R.E.M., Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and even Bob Dylan. So it's disappointing and unfortunate that Kelly -- whose best work holds its own alongside any of these icons -- doesn't attract much attention here.

On the perfectly realized ... Nothing But a Dream, the songwriter occasionally expands his rootsy sonic palette by adding subtle loops, techno beats and processed vocals to his traditional mix of chiming guitars, lonely fiddles, acoustic ruminations and detailed, character-driven story songs. Whether accompanied only by ex-Nick Cave cohort Mick Harvey on funeral organ, or a full band (snaking around the softly strummed, twangy guitars of the album's most heartwrenching ballad, "Midnight Rain"), Kelly's high-lonesome voice, memorable compositions and classy arrangements have seldom been more impressive.

... Nothing But a Dream shimmers with the nervous energy of a sleepless night, evoking fleeting images of lost love that appear to the lonely protagonist during a feverish, fitful half-sleep. It's a poetic, beautifully rendered song cycle that proves Kelly is one of the most under-recognized artists of our time.

Paul Kelly plays the Variety Playhouse Thurs., April 18.


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