The music business is like any other—it’s good to have connections. Kelly Hogan is a longtime insider that never really caught on with the public. After the collapse of The Jody Grind and the release of three solo albums in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Hogan struggled to pay her band and gave up solo recording. During the next decade, she tended bar at a popular Chicago music venue, playing den mother to the city’s alt-country scene, and worked as a backup singer when local producers (including Steve Albini) came calling. With time, her Rolodex brimmed with A-list entries, including Neko Case, Mavis Staples, Jakob Dylan, Otis Clay, Wilco, Will Oldham, and Alejandro Escovedo. And when Anti- offered to resurrect her career, they lined up to pitch in. I Like To Keep Myself In Pain also features a wealth of songwriting talent— including Robbie Fulks, Andrew Bird, Robyn Hitchcock, M. Ward, and Stephin Merritt—who contributed songs specially earmarked for Hogan.
Despite the lineup of notable contributors, I Like To Keep Myself In Pain is fully Hogan’s album, built around her captivating country-tinged vocals. Her close relationship with Case—Hogan sings in Case’s band, and “Golden,” the album’s only track written by Hogan, is about Case’s early career—is uncannily apt, as the two share a gracefully versatile voice suitable for both indie and roots rock. Like Case, Hogan sings powerfully but never melodramatically, a balance these gentle songs were crafted to accommodate.
With a smooth, wordless refrain and a soulful purr, Hogan makes Bird’s relaxed “We Can’t Have Nice Things” alternatively sultry and bright, while a hushed whisper keeps Ward’s “Daddy’s Little Girl” (in which an older Frank Sinatra is imagined apologizing to daughter Nancy) from becoming overdone. At the album’s halfway mark, Hogan softly builds Vic Chesnutt’s dark narrative “Ways Of This World” with clean-throated affectation and echoing chants, layered over a tense, snaky acoustic motif. By that point, though, it’s clear that Hogan isn’t packing any big surprises in this otherwise pleasant, uncomplicated folk-pop record, and there’s not quite enough here to make her a late-stage star. But no matter. Even if her belated turn in the spotlight is ultimately short-lived, I Like To Keep Myself In Pain proves that it was well deserved.