With upwards of two decades and some 10-plus albums under his belt, Joey Kline could be considered one of the elder statesmen of the Seattle music scene. He's certainly one of this city's most talented and prolific songwriters, an artist who moves easily between pop balladry, driving rock and the country-tinged swing of his Montana upbringing.
Kline and his latest band, the Plaintiffs, have followed up their 2003 debut "To Helen, a Handbasket" with a rock opera of sorts, a cycle of songs that flows like a short-story cycle in the American hard-boiled tradition. "La Familia," with its narrative meditations on crime and life's hard knocks, contains some of Kline's strongest and most sophisticated songwriting to date, and the musicianship backing the effort is topnotch. The album is a gem.
"It's almost like I wrote a book," Kline says of the songs comprising "La Familia," which range from the straightforward rock of "Damned," to the BTO-inflected "Mirror Demons," to the confessional waltz of "Can I Ever Get Away with Anything." Each number tells a story of life on the skids, and if the subject matter is hardscrabble, the songs themselves burst with life and creativity.
Kline says the thematic unity of the album was a mostly intentional move. "It fell into place that way," he says, adding that he started with a trio of songs that were more or less "direct crime dramas." Once he realized the connection, he went to work filling in the gaps. "I started pulling together other things that would complement those," Kline explains. "I started writing in that vein."
This effort included an archaeological dig into older material, such as the hilarious "Happy New Year," a scathing greeting card from a jilted lover that contains the chorus "Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, bitch."
Once he had a full complement of songs, Kline traveled to GLEA studios in Bozeman, Mont., to record with the rest of the band. That would be bassist Frank Trevino, drummer James Cookman, lead and lap steel guitarist Rupert Kettle, guitarist Patrick Gray and "texture man" Richard Mockler, a high-school friend of Kline's, on keyboards.
Yes, that's right - three guitars, plugged in for maximum effect. Such a high-octane collection of veteran musicians provides just the right oomph to Kline's material. The Plaintiffs build rich walls of sound without recourse to tricks. In such legendary Seattle bands as Prudence Dredge and the Squirrels, Kline often opted for an experimental approach, incorporating horns and corny humor; with the Plaintiffs he's going straight for the jugular. The music on "La Familia" is economical in the best sense.
"The real musicians are the ones that can make great music on the cheapest guitars," Kline, who just turned 43, says. "I've never been that impressed by gear."
He believes his own songwriting has improved with age. "I've gotten better at not putting in the groaner line, to sabotage myself," Kline says, laughing. "I had a habit of writing a mostly serious song and then screwing it up." Certainly the humor is still there in his songwriting, only now it's tempered or deepened by wisdom and irony. There is even something a bit elegiac about the songs on "La Familia," a kind of hard-won acceptance that embraces a full spectrum of emotions from melancholy and anger to the circumscribed elation of life's small joys.
Kline says he and the band are enjoying themselves now more than ever, having found a good groove and record label, Career Records in Montana, that supports them 100 percent. "I'm well aware that I'm doing it because I love it," he says of playing music, adding that as an artist he's "still trying to reach the audience, but it's not my job to convince anyone to love it."
Still, he adds: "When people hear us, they generally think its pretty kick-ass."
The Plaintiffs are playing a handful of shows in the next few weeks to support the new album, with the goal of getting back into the studio as early as next year to record another batch of songs.
"I want to get a song on a movie soundtrack," Kline says, "and I want to go back to [touring] Spain. I think those are reasonable goals to shoot for," he adds with a smile.