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John Paul Keith, the brilliant singer-songwriter and blistering guitarist who exploded out of a self-imposed musical exile in Memphis with 2009’s critically acclaimed Spills and Thrills and 2011’s The Man That Time Forgot, returns with Memphis Circa 3AM—his most accomplished and moving collection of songs yet.
Less a tribute to the spirit, soul and sound of the city than the living, crackling embodiment of it, Memphis Circa 3AM finds Keith reaching the songwriting depths and musical heights that his previous two releases foreshadowed. Produced by the truly legendary Roland Janes—house guitarist for Sun Records in the 50s and longtime engineer and producer at Sam Phillips Recording Services—the album is a time-stopping 12-song duet between two deeply kindred artists, as Keith’s songs and Janes’ direction achieve a sonic balance that is both familiar and original. Cut live to two-inch tape—with Janes providing direction from the booth and not a computer in site—the album sounds deeply rooted and incredibly fresh at the same time.
On each song—from the raucous stop-start rave-up of “You Really Oughta Be With Me” to the sad resign of “She’s Almost You,” Keith is backed with a new power and delicacy by the One Four Fives. And as his band musically ups the ante, Keith meets it with his finest songs to date. There are few songwriters today that can match his ability to invest a simple turn of phrase with so many layers of meaning. From the hungover romance of “Ninety Proof Kiss” (“No one ever looked finer still wearing last-night’s eyeliner / I’m sure gonna miss that ninety-proof kiss”) to the plaintive moving-on heartbreak of “She’s Almost You” (“Why should I pine for you everyday, when she loves the words I used to say to you / they’re almost true,”) Keith’s lyrics have an amazing ability to sound effortless and impeccably crafted. On “New Year’s Eve”—a stunning blue-eyed soul ballad that matches the melancholy sweetness of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham—Keith has written a song worthy of becoming a standard. “Next thing you know, I’ll be lying about my age / I’m reading the book, but I don’t want to turn the page /Can you believe it is already New Year’s Eve?”
It is a feeling and theme Keith returns to unflinchingly throughout the album. The songs hint of time slipping away, somewhere between midnight and morning, of feeling lost and in the right place at the same time, of being heartbroken and happy, optimistic and fearful, inspired to move forward by looking back. Keith’s ability to let these contradictions stand together unresolved has created a work of great and subtle complexity.
With the seamless balance it strikes between Keith and his songs and Janes and his production, Memphis Circa 3AM is like discovering a musical Rosetta stone that decrypts the deep and mysterious codes of Memphis music to reveal the truths they hold. With Janes’ help, Keith has managed to harness the power of the city’s musical history and traditions to create a collection of songs that is truly timeless. In keeping with the album’s themes of contradiction, Keith has created a work that rightly stands in the pantheon of Memphis’ best while remaining adamantly and uniquely his own.