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Some singers seem to be loved mostly by other musicians — they're the cult artists whose songs get covered in disproportionate relation to how many people have heard them. Then there are singers like Kelly Hogan, who's beloved by those cult artists. Hogan, the go-to backup singer for Neko Case and others, has spent so much time assisting other performers that it's taken 11 years for her to get around to releasing a new solo record.
But even that new album, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (out June 5), exemplifies the extent to which great under-appreciated musicians love Hogan. Each of its 13 songs was written for her by a widely respected songwriter — Stephin Merritt, the late Vic Chesnutt, Catherine Irwin of Freakwater, Robbie Fulks, Robyn Hitchcock, M. Ward, Andrew Bird, and so on — with the exception of "Golden," which Hogan wrote about her friendship with Neko Case. Hogan's own backing band features Booker T. Jones (of Booker T & The MGs), James Gadson (who's worked with Bill Withers and Beck, among others), Scott Ligon (of the rebooted NRBQ) and Gabriel Roth (of The Dap Kings). Hogan, the pro's pro, has got greatness-by-association locked down.
Of course, Hogan doesn't need greatness-by-association — she's got plenty of actual greatness at her disposal — but her collaborators are uniquely positioned to recognize and celebrate her considerable vocal and interpretive gifts. On I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, she does justice to that remarkable cross-section of songwriting talent, blending vintage country, classic soul and pop into a sound worthy of any era. "Ways of This World" is particularly striking, and not just because it was written by Vic Chesnutt — who committed suicide in 2010 but was first to send Hogan a custom song she'd requested — while "We Can't Have Nice Things" (written by Jack Pendarvis and Andrew Bird) fans out from a slyly self-pitying shamble to a Technicolor pop blast, propelled by Booker T's organ. A wonderfully hooky roots-rock song written by The Mekons' Jon Langford, "Haunted" makes room for a roadhouse-country vibe, a "na-na na-na-na-na-na" chorus and a few welcome rounds of handclaps.
It's fitting that the only Hogan-penned track here, "Golden," is a marvel of generosity in which she encourages Case to "show 'em what you're made of" — even in the spotlight, Hogan can't help but dole out loyal assistance. Listening to it and the rest of I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, it's no surprise that so many of her peers jumped at the chance to return the favor.