Produced by Mitchell Froom and David Boucher
While By No Means is his fourth solo album, Keller’s musical career stretches back to 1978 when he co-founded the band, Tommy Tutone, and co-wrote their hit, “867-5309/Jenny.” In the mid 1990s, Keller shifted gears and started working for Philip Glass, first running his publishing company and later becoming Glass’ manager. In 1999, he also founded the publishing and management company, St. Rose Music.
In the mid-00s, Keller returned to making music. His regular gigs – first at the fabled Lower Eastside Manhattan club, the Lakeside Lounge, and more recently the Rockwood Music Hall – became infamous for their “revolving door” policy, where he would pull up on stage whatever musician he saw in the room. Over the past 15 years too, Keller has been hosting weekly studio jams, inviting musicians he knew and didn’t know to play. “The jams were always heavenly to me because you weren’t rehearsing,” he shares. “There was no structure. Whatever happened just happened.”
In making the new album, the NYC-based Keller and the L.A.-based Froom started by sending tracks back and forth and discussing extensively what type of sonic world they would create for this record. Keller’s well-received prior solo albums (Heaven Can Wait, Soul Candy, and Sunshine In My Pocket) very much boasted a full band sound, but Keller and Froom concluded this outing required going in a new direction to match its musical core: Keller’s lo-fi recordings.
Keller’s seemingly simple but ultimately sophisticated song structure (Froom describes them as being haiku-like) led the two to build a spare sound based around Keller and his acoustic guitar that would suggest a retro feel but without sounding old. Froom compares their approach to the Muscle Shoals’ attitude of “we’re just gonna play less.”
The album’s unadorned arrangements were also influenced by Keller’s rough-hewn, worldly-wise vocals. “A lot of the directions of how my songs sound is because of what my voice sounds like,” he admits. “If I had a different voice, these songs wouldn’t be like this.” Keller says that he no longer tries to sound like other singers as he did in his younger days, and now there is more truthfulness and honesty in his vocals.
His vocal growl is in full effect on By No Means’ first single, “Don’t Get Me Started,” which somewhat ironically was done after the rest of the album was recorded in the fall of 2019. Written during the pandemic, “Don’t Get Me Started” articulates a litany of pent-up frustrations that resonate with listeners by being both timely and timeless. While this gut-punch of an acoustic blues stomper stands within the album’s other tracks, it also stands apart by being the only number with an extended solo by David Hidalgo.
Kicking off By No Means is the infectious, laid-back groove of “Easy Rider,” a song that both Keller and Froom mention as coming together easily. Although track #2, “Laying On The Tracks,” also flows effortlessly, a good deal of experimentation was needed to make it sound so simple. “Pretending,” the first Keller demo Froom worked on, brings together two of the album’s prime musical inspirations: the understated J.J. Cale-style blues and New Orleans swamp pop rhythms. The sly humor and shuffle beat in “Find My Shadow,” meanwhile, suggests another album touchstone, Roger Miller. The song ranks as one of Keller’s favorites along with “Maria Come Home,” a talk-sung tune that he admits is pretty dark stuff.
“Done Walking The Line,” which Keller describes as the “flip side” to the similarly-entitled Johnny Cash hit, and “I Don’t Want To Fight Anymore” offer examples of how unobtrusively Hidalgo’s guitar playing fits into Keller’s songs. The former features a brief but evocative Cash-esque solo, and the latter finds Hidalgo just playing the rhythm line for his solo, which pairs perfectly with the song. Froom marvels at Hidalgo’s restrained style: “he would just play a few notes, and they would register much deeper than some guy shredding.”
Making By No Means was a joy for Keller, who offers his own high praise for his rhythm section: Drummer Michael Urbano and the longtime, in-demand bassist Bob Glaub. “They knew what was important and were locked in to whatever rhythm was coming off of my thumb.” This camaraderie made the studio a very comfortable environment for Keller, as did the very clear plan that Froom and his co-producer/engineer David Boucher devised. “We knew what we were going for,” Keller states, “and we had three players who would get that intuitively.”
The other key player behind By No Means, along with Keller’s previous albums, is his long-time songwriting collaborator, Byron Isaacs. The one-time Levon Helm bassist and current Lumineer, Isaacs has been writing with Keller for around 15 years. “If I have a choice, I will always have Byron in the room – his ears are so good. He heard the hook in “Don’t Get Me Started” and convinced me to finish the song, Keller explains.
Candid and uncompromising, “Don’t Get Me Started” epitomizes the true-to-its-core music on By No Means. Keller’s soulful Americana songs hold such a fresh edge and intimacy and the economical arrangements subtly reveal an expertly-crafted depth that By No Means stands as a new, richly rewarding milestone in his career. Froom might have summarized it best when he says that the album feels almost “like a greatest hits record because all of the songs.”