In his native Australia, singer/songwriter Paul Kelly is accorded the same kind of reverence and respect Gordon Lightfoot and Bruce Cockburn receive here in Canada, and deservedly so: The 62-year-old has produced a formidable body of work over the past 35 years.
Kelly's late '80s albums with his bands the Coloured Girls and the Messengers were his commercial peak, but solo records since then have remained of high quality, too. They've often leaned to bluegrass and folk, but Life Is Fine goes back to his earlier roots-rock sound. He's recruited a full band, including nephew Dan Kelly on guitar, while longtime comrades Vika and Linda Bull are featured extensively on harmony vocals. Kelly's a democratic bandleader, giving the sisters a lead vocal on a tune apiece (the bluesy "My Man's Got a Cold" and "Don't Explain," respectively), adding variety but disrupting the album's flow a touch.
The key attraction, though, remains Kelly's vocals and well-crafted material, and both are in fine shape here. There's something intensely honest and warm about his voice, one capable of expressing joy and melancholy equally well. Both emotions co-exist in the strong opening cut "Rising Moon," while "Finally Something Good" lovingly notes, "You're early springtime blossoms floating on my street." He updates the Roy Orbison classic "Leah" cleverly on "Leah: The Sequel," while the title track features his original music framing lyrics by Langston Hughes.
It takes a few spins for the subtle charms of Life Is Fine to fully kick in, but it rewards patience. It may not quite match the sustained brilliance of seminal '80s albums Gossip and Under the Sun, but this is another fine effort. (Cooking Vinyl)