We often take an album and measure its weight by the standout tracks – call them singles, hits, whatever you will. But then there’s the albums that truly set out to be that: an album. A group of tracks that work well enough together to accomplish the goal of the artist and translate the emotion behind their creation.
Nick Keeling’s latest tape release, The City of Seven Hills, works to document his hometown of Cincinnati. It intends to provide an “atmospheric interpretation” of the town he grew up in, according to his description. There’s nothing that’s stand-out special on the release, but something about it works to become incredibly emotional on its own. If you’re looking for a hit here, don’t bother listening. But if you’re looking for a sense of nostalgia and a soundtrack for memory, here it is.
Keeling’s effort – more so idea – expands through seven tracks, one for each of he hills Cincinnati was said to be built upon. The Urbana artist provides a musical background of improvised piano pieces which layer over field recordings from the Cincinnati area and archived news reports dealing with the city.
The piano work is as lackadaisical as the songwriting, if you would be so gracious to award that action to Keeling here. He lightly taps down on a few chords throughout “Clifton Heights,” but the most important thing is that they’re the right chords. Here you have an artist fully aware of what’s overdoing it and when to hold back. The field recordings – a light hint of laughing and some walking in-and-out of rooms – only add to the picture the album is painting.
The City of Seven Hills succeeds in taking the lo-fi aesthetic and pulling back the reigns just before crossing the line of becoming pretentious. The sound of the piano bends with the fading quality of the tape (“Fairmount”) and becomes as old as the city the album documents. While the track runs far too long for its repetitive improvisation, its job is accomplished early on.
Again, Keeling reaches a peak of emotion on the final track, “Fairview Heights.” The opening recording lays it out for you as the sound of Ray McKinley’s voice echoes the same homesick sentiment Keeling has develops by this point of the record: “Cincinnati, I’m coming home to you.” The voices quietly coming in-and-out of the background cements the beauty of Keeling’s piano – the best improvisation he has on the tape. The dynamic slows and quiets, as if Keeling was aiming to depict the distance growing between him and his home, then the click of the tape sounds and the album comes to a close.
In just over a half hour, Keeling explains himself without words. He’s over 230 miles from Cincinnati, and each recording brings the spirit of home a little bit closer while life makes it grow further away.