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JOHN KEENAN, “Where I Went Wrong” - Chuck Taylor Review
Kansas-based composer and musician John Keenan’s “Where I Went Wrong” (“WIWW”) is more than a confessional collective of post-millennial hip-hop. In fact, there is simply no ready-made term for the musical mastery that pervades the album’s instrumental palette: hip-hop with a wildly novel array of sub-genres, from rock, classic and funk to alternative and even classical. Released in November 2012 on Full Circle Entertainment, its message is also a far cry from the bravado of most hip-hop, instead testifying to humility, healing and the long road to recovery, following Keenan’s years- long battle with drugs and alcohol.
Collaborating with guitarist, vocalist and co-producer Scott Martz, who has endured his own path to recovery, “WIWW” describes a young man’s jagged journey etched in tough life lessons and hard knocks. Any doubts? Take a look at Keenan’s track list, which includes such titles as “Might Go Crazy,” “Living Right Went Wrong,” “Lives We’ve Made,” “Waves of Doubt” and “Don’t Decide I Failed.”
Highlights of the album include the gently chugging (and hitworthy) “One Step At A Time,” framed around the beloved classical carol “Canon In D,” a collaboration with Keenan’s brother Mark and Kansas City’s Irv Da Phenom. Alongside a melodic flypaper chorus, Mark offers, “First step I confess I made a hell of a mess, and all the stress from the rest made me fail my test/But I retry a second time/One step at a time, moving forward to my goals/I know it’s gon be alright.” Likewise, he looks ahead in “The Journey,” grunting and groaning with determination amid a rapid-fire rap: “Getting lost is easy, gonna happen often/It’s all part of the journey... be glad ya got one.”
For “Love Is Just A Game,” Keenan composed the beat, which brother Mark melodically plumped, with an added rap from cousin Tyler. It addresses the universal theme of heartbreak. “It’s about those loves we’ve all lost,” he says. “People seem to really identify with this song. For sure, it happens to everyone at some point.” Among the most clever tracks on “WIWW” is “Lie To Kick It,” which opens with a sampled spoken- word voicemail, with guitar and the chorus vocal contributed by Martz. It’s based on a 2Pac jam, with the lyrical notion that “because I can’t afford the chains, the clothes, the accessories to present a person who ‘kicks it,’ I’m happier just being myself. I am who I am,” Keenan says, adding with a laugh, “Scott actually calls me anti-image.”
Another could-be hit, “Love and Peace,” was inspired by The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” and features a beautiful, spiritual chorus delivered by Martz—singing as if his hands are raised to the heavens, “All it takes, son, you gotta find all the bitter and set it free/One morning brought me closer to God you’ll see/He saw something in me, offer up to all in love and peace.” And “Get It All Back,” which is among Keenan’s personal favorites, conjures old-school funk, with a breathy, dreamlike rap and a giddy-up tempo. Keenan confesses, “This one got me dancing—and god knows I don’t know how to dance.”
Of course, it’s impossible to describe “WIWW” without drawing attention to the most unique song on the disc, “Country and Western.” Martz composed a mystical, ethereal percussive-driven track and added acoustic guitars, after which Keenan wrote a lyric about taking personal responsibility and what he calls a “gibberish chorus,” leaving the two confounded by its potential namesake. “It sounded country to me, so I called it ‘Country and Western’ after a great line from ‘The Blues Brothers Movie” where Jake Blues is at Bob’s Country Bunker and asks what kind of music they play. The lady responds, ‘We have both kinds, country and western.’ ”
With the project now wrapped after a year working with Martz, Keenan says his hopes for “Where I Went Wrong” are to both inspire listeners and offer a sonic experience that perhaps goes against the grain: “I want people to hear things they haven’t heard before —some stuff that’s kind of weird almost, certainly unexpected.”
But more so, he says that if even one person is inspired to make positive choices in life after listening, then his mission is accomplished. “On my fourth sobriety birthday, it was my first night completely on my own. I dropped to my knees and cried a ridiculous amount of tears... of gratitude. I felt like I’d traveled 10,000 miles over my 27 years and had finally come full circle. I’d like to offer others the inspiration to make different choices than I did. If someone is struggling and wants help, maybe they can gain some small thing from my experience.”
Chuck Taylor has been an entertainment writer for the past 25 years, including more than a decade as an editor, Senior Writer and critic at Billboard magazine in New York.