Keith Sykes,
Let It Roll
(Fat Pete, 2006)

Keith Sykes, who is from Memphis and lives there yet, recorded his first album for Vanguard in the early 1970s. He's been an active figure in the music industry ever since, issuing nine records, none of which -- amazingly to me -- I have managed to hear. I catch up with him on this, his 10th. Before that, I knew him best as a sporadic collaborator with his pal John Prine (most recently on "Long Monday" from Prine's 2005 Fair & Square).

On Let It Roll, Sykes offers up 10 originals (nine of them co-writes with assorted friends and associates) and a couple of covers, including an engagingly conceived rearrangement of the Buddy Holly evergreen "Peggy Sue." What we have here is good-time, stripped-down, unpretentious rock 'n' roll -- downhome though not in Prine's Appalachia-steeped, folksinger way -- with an occasional acoustic-guitar, finger-picking excursion. Sykes's voice, if a bit thin, is always ingratiating. His songs give the impression of somebody who likes to have a good time so long as it doesn't involve undue exertion or headaches and regrets in the morning. You might call it the rock of aged, if that covers the likes of Sykes, me and any listener old enough to remember Holly and Chuck Berry when their grand new songs were on freshly minted 45s, spinning on and beating from every decent radio station and jukebox in the U.S.A.

At this stage of his career, Sykes' songwriting ambitions are modest, and nothing here swings for the bleachers or shoots for the stars. I like that. Though in the liner notes he lists Bob Dylan among his influences, Dylan's influence is surely a distant one. Straightforward and earthbound, Sykes' lyrics are typically delivered with rueful grin or chuckle, observing ordinary life in which nobody dies, gets killed, drowns in despair or misbehaves melodramatically. It all ends winningly with a song that, in common with other Sykes creations, turns out better than its title would lead one to anticipate. "You Better Be Ready to Dance" brings back -- at least in melody, lyric, setting and gentle Mexican rhythm -- the desert ghost of Marty Robbins.

by Jerome Clark
3 March 2007

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