At CB’s Gallery earlier this year, I was transfixed by a boozy, moonstruck song about an ephemeral girl who smokes in “little sips” and finally “dissipates [like a] sky-written word.” The small, gray-haired singer accompanied himself on keyboards: slinky jazz runs during the descriptive verses, and a flurry of hopeful chords on the chorus, where the girl merges with the music. My first guess was “Leonard Cohen cover,” and I stuck around to find out. But the song was “The Beautiful Changes” by the singer Kenny White, who continued to unpack gems of narrative and musical detail to rather stunned applause.
Those songs are collected on White’s just released CD, a debut that’s been simmering over a 25-year career in music. White has played keyboards on, arranged, and produced records for Peter Wolf, Shawn Colvin, and the Neville Brothers. He wrote commercials for 12 years. He’s scored films. He’s written songs before—Marc Cohn recorded one that’s in a Kevin Costner movie—but says he’d always been driven by “what’s mainstream,” adding, “These are the first songs I ever felt connected to.”
The catalyst was the dissolution of White’s 14-year marriage last year, and some psychotherapist’s loss is music’s gain. Bleak and intricate as a tree in winter, the new songs mourn love’s passage into strangeness with the rue of Stephin Merritt, the tenderness of Joni Mitchell, and the deceptive simplicity of John Prine. The album’s called Uninvited Guest after one of the love-gone-wrong tunes (“You might as well be speaking underwater/When I hear ‘It’s all for the best’/All I know is every day I feel more like an uninvited guest”). White also chose the title because, he says, laughing, “Who really wants to hear the debut album of a 47-year-old guy?”
A roomful of graybeards at Fez did back in March, when White played with his touring band of fellow studio vets, including Saturday Night Live drummer Shawn Pelton, guitarist Larry Salzman, and Paul Ossola on upright bass. White’s wary humility was charming onstage: He seemed to be discovering along with the audience just how good this stuff is. Though everything he plays falls under the “adult contemporary” umbrella, the styles range to fit the songs. The bouncy “One Step Up” is as twangy and lyrically compressed as “I Walk the Line,” the menacing “Don’t Go Out Tonight” is straight-up blues, and the piano pop of “Every Time You Walk Away” would work equally well in a cabaret or on WFUV. White ended with “In My Recurring Dream,” which starts out spare and nightmarish—a plane full of “carry-on coffins,” a father’s corpse residing on the living-room couch—and ends in a rave-up where the singer is “fearless,” “hopeful,” “and giving up the fight.” White’s hands were a blur by the end, leaping over each other on the keyboard like tarantulas zapped with current. The crowd leaped to its feet when he finished, and the band looked happily dazed.
For a divorce album, Uninvited Guest is surprisingly free of rage—there’s no “Idiot Wind,” no “Dry.” This makes more sense after White tells me he’s the one who left the marriage and that he started out writing from his wife’s point of view (“Uninvited Guest,” “Cold Winter Wind”). The newest songs, like “Recurring Dream” and the marvelous, Cole Porter-esque “Going Now,” a live staple that didn’t make it onto the album, take a stab at his side of the story, knitting together guilt and sadness with elation over the possibility of a second act.