A Distant Country

Kelly Hogan's honey-dipped pipes.

Alt-country chanteuse Kelly Hogan has one extraordinary set of honey-dipped pipes. She is today's answer to Dusty Springfield, who had the uncanny ability and range to sing heart-wrenching songs of all genres and make them sound all her own.

Sometimes Hogan resonates like the perfect genre-bending stylist to translate the soundtrack to the next David Lynch movie. She's a little bit country, a tad jazzy and offers plenty of detached and surreal pop coolness unmatched since femmes fatales Julee Cruise and Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval burst on the scene. Underneath it all, the ghost of Tammy Wynette infiltrates her gorgeous, heart-rending vocal cords to stunning effect.

Hogan defends her less-than-country new album, Because It Feels Good; she shares a special kinship with songs like "Ode to Billie Joe" and rejects any comparison to Sandoval. "[The record's] more like falling asleep with your AM transistor radio under the covers when you're a kid," said Hogan from her adopted home of Chicago last week. "It's more like Bobbie Gentry than Hope Sandoval. I didn't try to make a country record, I tried to make a good record."

This part-time publicist and bartender began her singing career in the late '80s with jazz-noir-country punks Jody Grind in her native Atlanta, and later joined Southern gothic rockabilly-pop outfit the Rock*A*Teens before embarking on a solo career in the Windy City.

On Because, her second proper solo album (she shared the spotlight with her current touring band, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, on last year's Beneath the Country Underdog), released last month on Bloodshot Records, Hogan displays a voice so versatile it can illuminate any song in any style, whether it be honky-tonk tearjerkers, alternative pop indifference, sublime jazz ballads or R&B-stoked love trains. She translates them all into a heavenly state no other current singer can touch.

On her new, dreamlike effort, Hogan's eclectic, sometimes puzzling choice of covers encompasses the Statler Brothers ("I'll Go to My Grave Loving You"), Charlie Rich ("Stay"), Randy Newman ("Living without You"), King Floyd ("Please Don't Leave Me Lonely") and Smog ("Strayed"). She continues to explore the diverse travails of American roots music and beyond, evincing both a perceptive predilection for good songwriters and a faultless interpretive skill. Her flawless tone, subtle inflection and meticulous phrasing make Hogan's sultry, ethereal singing on these steadfast covers seem purely natural and effortless.

"I choose songs for all different reasons," explains Hogan. "But all the songs I choose have to have lyrical integrity and have to move me in some way musically, either in my mind or in my soul or in my pants. Also, I want to lead people to the music I love. I'm doing a public service."

However intriguing her preference for sundry covers, Hogan's originals (co-written with guitarist Andy Hopkins) fare even better and show outstanding promise in her improving song craftsmanship.

"No, Bobby, Don't" commences with tenderly uplifting strings and unwavering vocals recalling the desperate tale of a woman attempting to resurrect a shattered relationship. This classic tale of country heartache is secured by Jon Rauhouse's exemplary string maneuvering on pedal steel guitar.

The raucous and bittersweet "Sugarbowl" parades a toe-tapping country twang, a vibe so infectious and appealing you wonder why this blossoming songwriting tandem hasn't submitted more tales of everyday social commentary and avoided the overall solemn mood of recent recordings.

"I'm always trying to keep moving musically, keep freaking myself out, keep challenging myself and trying not to stay in one place," says Hogan. "There's no yee-haw to be found on this tour, but they're not bummer shows either. Bring your slow-dancing shoes. We're trying to sound as foxy as possible and serve the songs at all times."