On Gift Horse, their second album for Vanguard and fifth studio effort overall, Stephen Kellogg and his bandmates— Kit "Goose" Karlson (keys, bass, vocals), Brian "Boots" Factor (drums, vocals) and Sam "Steamer" Getz (guitars, vocals)—bring the rich legacy of American rock & roll into the present tense. This is thrilling music, muscular, immediate and life-embracing, steeped in tradition but addressing the present moment boldly and eloquently.
To get to this point in their evolution, SK6ERS (as their loyal fans fondly refer to them) simply had to come to terms with their collective identity once and for all, and producer Mark Weinberg had a hand in getting them there.
"Every time you make a record, you learn a whole bunch of new things, and this was no different," says Kellogg, who formed the Sixers with Karlson and Factor eight years ago in Western Massachusetts. "When we met with Mark, he encouraged us to be unapologetic about who we are, not masking our influences but embracing them and running with it. He kept reminding us, 'You're not gonna be Bob Seger if you spend your whole life trying. You're Stephen Kellogg and The Sixers, so just play this music the way you write, from your hearts.'"
Kellogg chose to title the album Gift Horse for a clear-cut thematic reason. "When you name a record," he says, "you're looking for something that feels right. There's the old saying, 'Don't look a gift horse in the mouth,' which translated to me as showing appreciation for what you have.' And I thought, that's exactly what this record's about - appreciation that I have a job right now in 2011, with all that's going on economically in our country; appreciation for my family, because there's nothing that I value more; and appreciation of America in general."
By and large, the songs of Gift Horse are real-life narratives, most of them directly relating to personal experiences. "1993," recounts Kellogg's relationship with the childhood sweetheart who became his wife; the highway anthem "Who We Are, Who We'll Become" is based on a piece of grandfatherly wisdom; "Watch You Grow" poignantly expresses a father's love; "Song for Lovers" considers mortality in the context of a lifelong relationship; and "We Belong Here" is the album's string-laden thematic centerpiece
"There's not one lyric on the record that's not about me or somebody I know," he points out. "It's gotten to the point on the last three records where family is such a big theme, and I decided to close this one with 'Noelle, Noelle,' which is about our youngest daughter. The last verse is, 'Someone asked me just the other day/ "How many songs you gonna write about those kids and the one you took for life?"/I just smile and say "As many as it takes."' I wrote the last two songs on the record, 'Roots and Wings' and 'Noelle, Noelle,' while we were making it. I realized I had more to say about the subject of family, and that makes me think it's got to be a huge thing for a lot of people. So I try to write in a way that's going to positively impact people without being too obvious or literal."
At the same time, the album is set against the broader tableau of contemporary America. In Kellogg's new songs, this is no static backdrop but a turbulent, often bitter reality that works its way into every aspect of our lives.
"In terms of what's going on in America right now, I have definite opinions, and pretty passionate ones," he says. "I see a lot of division, with extremists on both sides, but I think there's a huge number of people who have opinions that fall right in the middle of all that. I'm one of them, and I hope that I can speak to those people and say, 'Hey, it's OK to be moderate about things; being radical doesn't necessarily mean that you're right about something. I try to take that point of view and bring it into our music. Let's establish the fact that we all belong here, and then maybe we can work through our differences with a little more grace."
What's particularly striking about Kellogg's aesthetic in general and this group of songs in particular is the very normalcy they project. He's a guy with his feet on the ground, as he directly acknowledges in "Gravity," the first single and opening track. "By way of the journey we've been on as a band," he explains, "we've now come to this place where we can ask the rhetorical question, is it OK to be the guy next door and rock & roll? We don't need to be bad boys, or say things we don't mean, or try to be cool in order to be accepted. This kind of music is the meat of this country. What I care about is feeding my family, living a life that I can feel proud of and doing an honest day's work. Those are the motivating factors in our music."
Gift Horse stands as an unambiguous statement of belonging and persevering during these times—the record is as straightforward, and as resonant, as that. "I've been putting out records for 10 years now and I've made plenty of mistakes, Kellogg says. "They say you get one shot, but I don't believe that for a second. You get as many shots as you're willing to hang in there and go for. We've learned a lot, and that's worth something to me. I'm trying to focus on the things that are real and within my grasp: the people who come to our shows and listen to the music, my kids and my wife and my friends."
There's nothing hidden or tentative about Kellogg's music or the values he stands for. If you've been itching to crank up some bracing, timeless rock & roll that speaks to these values loudly and proudly, then Gift Horse is exactly what you've been waiting for.