A sample of this and a sample of that | AspenTimes.com

A sample of this and a sample of that

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
The Samples, led by singer-guitarist Sean Kelly, play tonight at PAC3 in Carbondale.
Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen Times |

Eight years went by without an album by the Colorado band The Samples, and when they returned recently, it seems that big things were going through the mind of singer, songwriter and guitarist Sean Kelly, the lone original member still in the group. The new album, released this month, is titled “America,” which promises expansive thinking.

The title also might suggest some critical takes on the country. Kelly has a long streak of anti-authoritarianism in him. As a kid in Vermont, he preferred looking at nature, especially birds, to doing his assigned homework. Even though The Samples’ music wasn’t centered around improvised instrumental passages — their sound was focused on Kelly’s songs and voice, and the reggae-ish beat behind it — the group was affiliated with the jam-band movement, thanks in large part to the band’s independent stance. (Coming out of late-’80s Boulder no doubt had much to do with it, too.) Kelly, now 48, is bothered by the sound of and atmosphere surrounding current pop music.

“Kids these days think there’s no way music can not feel destroyed, overproduced, overmanufactured, compressed, overpolished,” he said in an interview with The Aspen Times last year.

Certainly, the USA doesn’t get a free pass from Kelly on “America.” “Wall Street Blues,” which introduces a Dylanesque talking-blues style that is entirely new to The Samples, takes a mocking tone toward contemporary economic realities. “Dandelions,” which has a mournful pace that is also fairly new for The Samples, takes aim at the controversial weed-killing product Roundup. “Darkest Before Dawn,” Kelly said this week from his home south of Denver, is about “kids in our society without any heroes and nothing left for them from this generation.”

But Kelly also has moments of optimism and light — including the title song, which is essentially a fond recollection of the quarter-century he has spent touring the land.

“It’s very American, a celebration of our country, the beautiful aspects of it, losing your soul in the heart of America,” he said of the tune. “It’s about traveling around from A to B, all the cool things, the fields I’ve seen that feed the earth. And my hope to drive to Alaska one day.”

The album also features a pair of lighthearted country tunes — more new stylistic ground for The Samples — and ends on the upbeat “The Whole World Can Sing.”

Kelly says the point is to create contrasts that bring out various sides.

“You need to hear one tune up against another tune,” he said. “It’s deliberately set up so the contrasts against each other is what ignites it. If not, it would be like having all daylight, no darkness; all hot, no cold. The contrasts make it stick out so much more. Otherwise everything’s trying to get through this one signal.”

Kelly certainly has his knocks against America. But making an album that leans heavily toward the negative would simply put Kelly in the same boat he rails against.

“There’s too much negative output,” he said. “TV, media is drenched in horror. It’s this complete mess. I think this album addresses that. It’s tough to find positive things.”

For Kelly, the most hopeful thing in the mess is the younger generation and people committed to giving it positive experiences and role models to follow.

“That’s our future,” he said. “I don’t forget what it’s like to be 16 and confused, but I don’t remember being so overly saturated in negative images. Balance it out — teach someone about how a bird flies. Otherwise we’re just creating zombies.”

Kelly has no children. But he has a fiancee and hopes to add a new member to the next generation.

“I’m working on it,” he said.

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