‘Give me three chords and I’ll give you a hit’. It’s a pop
music aphorism that has stood the test of time; but of course not everyone can do it. Paul
Kelly can though. He’s the personification of the man with a guitar and a simple tune
of direct, heartfelt lyrics. And now he’s one-upped his own minimalism.
If it takes three chords for a hit, how about a soundtrack? Don’t expect the
finely tuned songcrafting and effusive country-blues of Kelly’s work on Silent
Partner here. This is unalloyed atmospherics: a two-bar, two-chord motif repeated and
embellished throughout eight mood-evoking cues. There’s a distinct absence of variety
and melody, but an abundance of improvisational noodling. Crystalline guitars intertwine
with cymbal splashes, and a background of light, ethereal sound effects—the aural
equivalent of the unsettling vicissitudes that lurk beneath any suburban, bourgeois idyll.
For short attention spans the entertainment value is pretty thin. Not exactly like
watching grass grow, but perhaps waiting for a lantana to bloom. And nothing really
dazzles until the final track, which starts like the others but builds to an explosive
rock groove that sounds like the music bed to a thundering song, and even has a modulated
chord progression. Really, Kelly should write a melody, enlist the services of one of our
big voices—a Farnham, Barnes or Stevens—and enter the serious hard rocking
stakes with this one.
But that’s not the point for this soundtrack. It’s merely the climax to all
the atmosphere-making of understated instrumentation. The suppleness of the guitar
arpeggios and the sweetest of piano timbres offer subtle rewards for those happy to chill
out on fine production and sublime meanderings. All the while it is the omniscient cymbals
that propel the two-chord motor; splashes on the backbeats—this is far too gentle
terrain for brash snares or high-attack rimshots—and deft hi-hat patterns.
An album that would hardly be likely to be made in its own right, this is a dedicated
soundtrack through and through. It’s pleasant enough, but in isolation there seems to
be something missing. If not melody, then certainly some pictures (preferably at 24 frames
per second). Nevertheless, if you feel like clocking off, and booking in for a session of
laying back and drowning in a sea of unadulterated ambience, it’s just the ticket.