Three quarters of the way into Speed’s opening track, “Little Too Late,” guitarist Larry Keel continues a scorching bit of lead guitar soloing underneath the near shouting vocals of frontman Keller Williams and bassist Jenny Keel, and the Nicki Bluhm cover gets an excitingly intensifying ending—and the album never really lets up from there. Somehow, all of the single word titles to Keller Williams’ albums end up perfectly encapsulating their essence. Speed, the bluegrass singer-songwriter’s latest studio album that was recorded with The Keels, is yet another achievement in the same, with the title being the perfect word to evince the record’s hair-raising, downhill sprint-like stringband treatment of radio favorite songs (and a few originals).
Of all the musicians Williams has formed a band with (and of course there’s A LOT), bassist Jenny Keel and guitarist Larry Keel are probably his most apt sidekicks. Nobody fits into the enigmatic puzzle that is the one-man-band’s acoustic ninja-like nature, with the constantly shifting time signatures and the off-the-wall musical ideas, quite like this husband and wife duo. Nobody else, for instance, could navigate the headfirst dives into and out of slower tempo grooves like “La Vida Loco” and “Medula Oblongata,” or provide the kind of sinister, low-register back-up vocals for "Hash Pipe," and sound so at place in doing so. Speed, unpredictable and intriguing from end to end, presents The Keels as not just any ordinary musical trio but as some three-headed, single-entity, instrumental monster. Yet The Keels maintain a sense of old school, bluegrass mastery in their individual styles as well. Larry gets to rip solo after solo, and in doing so, often blends beautifully with Williams’s own rhythmic playing. Jenny meanwhile stays on the heels of the two every step of the way, laying down beats on that stand-up bass that are just as agile, yet huge and grounding.
The album goes all around mood-wise, though much of it, title implying, is intense, with most songs kicking their endings or middle sections into frenzy mode. But bits of songs round out the record with great color, such as the way the trio matches the peacefulness of “Slow Burn.” Remember how melancholy that “Peaches” song from the nineties sounded? Come chorus time on Keller and The Keels’ version, the song beams with feel-good rays of old school bluegrass. “Criminal” also holds down an easier groove, and also makes one consider that Keller is a big Tim O’Brien fan. One very specific thing about the Fiona Apple cover to which we will also allude is the magnificent little nod to Williams’ original “She Rolls.” In a single quick thrice-repeated moment, Williams reveals his sense of humor and cleverness.
Speed is as downright fun as anything Williams has put out, and most definitely one shot after the other of acoustic adrenaline (take caution when actually spinning the record while you drive in your car). But with a sound that is rustic and raw throughout, and with many unexpected tricks and treats along the way, it’s a vibrant new offering as well.