Admittedly, I'm a sucker for great women singers. But on this album Kris Delmhorst shows she has much more than a distinctive voice, bringing a thematically linked set of songs together with some wonderful musicianship by Delmhorst and her band. And yet, it really is Delmhorst's voice that makes this an album to listen to both casually and carefully... repeatedly. But while you listen, you'll also find that this CD shows lots of respect for folk music styles. A sample of the songs and why I can't stop listening:
"East of the Mountains"
This country ballad displays something of Delmhorst's feel for a range of music styles. The voice here has all the rich texture of the gentler songs on the album, but applied to a quick-tempo tale of a woman "sent away" by her family, never to see her lover again, Delmhorst registers both sensual longing and resilient anger.
Of the many songs on the album that give Delmhorst a chance to really give the warmth of her voice full sway, this along with "Mingalay" may be the best. And while the star here is the wonderful tone of voice that gives the song's simple melody its full emotional range, the more I listen, the more I find myself thinking about its subject... the difficulty of "rolling the stone away" in a maybe-permanently broken relationship.
This song is a great example of just how resourceful a musician Delmhorst is, neither just a singer nor just a songwriter. You sense here that the album has a non-ostentatious feel for making use of its range of resources, much like you do when you listen to Merrie Amsterberg's "Little Steps" or Lucinda Williams' "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" (as different as those artists are from Delmhorst).
"Juice and June"
At her most sultry here, Delmhorst and her band take it slow to get across the beauty of dancing toward passion, under the influence of "juice and June." The lovely risks of letting yourself fall too soon, which are slyly linked here to the pleasures of indulging in the music itself, give the song that wonderful quality of being a song about falling that lures its listener into falling for the song's own "juice and June."
I just have to begin by saying that this one sends chills down my spine. Again, and again. Why? Well, the song is about loving (someone's) storminess. It's an appealing tune, makes you want to sing it. And while the lyrics aren't unnecessarily tangled up with poetry... the texture of Delmhorst's voice gets a hold of the passion without histrionics... that is, through singing in the purest sense, not a display of singing. She handles the song the way a great actor does a great monologue, letting the material fully register in herself and show her the way to give it voice. And so she let's the song unfold toward its stormy closing instrumental burst in a way that feels organic.
A song that could show up on a Gillian Welch album, here played simply with background rain effects, and sung with that remarkable voice. Listen to it on headphones to hear how Delmhorst keeps it simple and yet there's nothing simple in a voice working with a song's genre to capture its expressive range while staying true to its style.
A sweet tune, about making the "wasted" past right in the lovely present. Pain has never looked so sweet, sincerely so, but you can't sing this song and make it believable unless you have a voice that can capture pain and beauty at once.
A sort of country shuffle on betrayal and paying it back. Again, Delmhorst knows how to work within the song's shape to texture it musically but not interfere with the expressive potentials that it has as written.
An album that circles its hurricane theme throughout would not be complete without a traditional sailor's ballad... given a thoughtful update here through Delmhorst's final verse that complements the song's traditional look homeward from the sea with a look out to sea from those waiting on land. Played here with a bluesy sultriness, the song allows Delmhorst to handle the melody with a characteristic mix of aching tenderness and passion.
And again, you'll be torn between singing along and listening in rapt silence. To me, a singer who can cultivate precisely this conflict in the listener must be doing something right.
If you want to get a sense of just how remarkable the songwriting is here, do this: make a short playlist for yourself of
"East of the Mountains"
"Juice and June"
and give this short set a listen. I defy you to find me a more beautiful set of songs on any recent recording, though each is different in style. But don't keep listening to this short set, go back to the full CD and listen to it all.
This is very, very good songwriting, musicianship, and, not least of all, singing. Spread the word, because this is an artist who deserves an appreciative audience.