The cover art on Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Charlene Kaye's debut album complements perfectly the sound of the album. It sees the writer's hands melting into thickening, winding vines on which the occasional flower or clock is suspended. The black pencil outline symbolizes the humbling, work-in-progress feel of a collection that might otherwise have been too cerebral in the hands of a lesser songwriter.
Things I Will Need in the Past — a full-fledged rumination on the nature of time and love — is alternately mournful and light. That's true from the opener, "Andromeda," and its dimming and brightening acoustic guitar, tambourine, strings and twinkling bells, and the lyrics that imagine sunrise and dark times in almost the same breath. "All the Life Around" — aired on a recent Acoustic Cafe radio show after Kaye was chosen as that month's "Artist to Watch" — begins with a simple string and horn intro before the song (about the various seasons) is punctuated with horn and piano staccato blasts, backed by hand-claps and proclamations of "hallelujah." It's all very reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens, whose orchestral arrangements Kaye counts as a major influence.
And it's a very important influence on the album's complex blend of sounds. Each track builds from an acoustic guitar and piano backbone before a dozen or more musicians layer the songs with dobros, congas, flugelhorns, glockenspiels, Wurlitzers, electric bass, strings and multi-vocals. It successfully reflects Kaye's own mixed musical heritage. Trained in classical piano since childhood, she was later inspired by punk rock and the late Elliot Smith, which eventually led to her picking up a guitar.
"Skin and Bones," a sweet pop-rock song about long-distance love, employs San Francisco native Darren Criss in a soulful duet with the Hawaii-born, Arizona-raised Kaye. And "Bonnie Parker," one of the album's more pensive moments, uses a dark guitar to tell the story of the legendary lawless lovers, Bonnie & Clyde. Despite the album's moody eclecticism, its dynamic moods and contrasting tempos are grounded by consistency, the depth of personal reflection and Kaye's personality.
So the album's ultimately best described as a balancing act of sound. The songs don't allow the listener to rest too long in either the saucy or wistful, the warm or the cold. One moment, the music's danceable, the next perfect for reminiscing. In fact, by the end of a dense song such as "Magnolia Wine," the listener has been tossed about. And it's just that kind of rhythm of change that keeps the savvy listener suspended, waiting, excited. —Cherri Buijk
Charlene Kaye plays Thursday, Jan. 15, at the Blind Pig, 208 S 1st St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555. With Alex Brumel & Janel Elizabeth and Darren Criss. Go to myspace.com/charlenekayemusicfor more info.
Charlene Kaye plays Thursday, Jan. 15, at the Blind Pig, 208 S 1st St., Ann Arbor; (734) 996-8555. With Alex Brumel & Janel Elizabeth and Darren Criss. Go to myspace.com/charlenekayemusic for more info.
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