Saturday, March 15, 2008

Rich-ley Talented

Kim Richey is among the best singer-songwriters working today. I pride myself on discovering new songwriting talent, and one lesson I’ve learned from the search is that talent must stand the test of time. My collection has many songwriters who caught my interest initially, but lost it after release upon release revealed the same stylistic tendencies over and over again.

I must admit, few make it to a magic level where I feel as if I’m 16 again, waiting for the newest Don McLean or Paul Simon record. Kim gets this response from my discriminating ear.

Richey broke onto the ever-crowded country stage in the mid ’90s. The problem was that she was only just “a little bit country.” Yes, her songs were about disappointment and loneliness, but she eschewed instrumentation like the fiddle and banjo in favor of a light, rhythmic acoustic-driven sound that swelled majestically by song’s end. Her early songs typically ended with an anthem-like hook that carried you blissfully away.

I’m sure Mercury Records was hoping she’d be the next Faith Hill or something, but Kim just didn’t fit the mold. She is tall and thin—a striking presence, but not glamorous. Her wispy blonde locks fall over her eyes but not in a coquetteish manner. She’s more like one of the guys. When you watch her play and interact with her band, you can see that she’s totally focused on the music. It’s cerebral, and often joyous.

Occasionally my wife and I list memorable concerts that we’ve attended over the years. Hearing Kim Richey at a supper club remains one of our favorites. What a night! This club had an open floor in front of the band, and Kim and her group rocked so terrifically and created such energy that we just stood and swayed and allowed the pulse to enter our bodies. I’ll never forget leaving the club and walking past a window where I spied the band decompressing after coming offstage. The excitement they felt—and my connection to her music—was very palpable.

Anyway, Kim has never scored a hit, but I know that she’s highly respected in Nashville—no small compliment when you consider the number of songwriters there per square yard. I imagine that some singers at the Faith Hill level have recorded her, and I know that she’s co-written many songs with other highly respected writers. You can get all this information at her website and MySpace page.

These sites are also where you can sample her most accomplished CD thus far—Chinese Boxes. This work marks a refinement in her style, a subtle pleasurable turn on an established winning approach. Perhaps it was writing and creating this work away from Nashville that inspired Richey. Maybe it was working with Giles Martin—the son of Sir George Martin, legendary Beatles producer. It could also be that it’s been almost five years since the last CD, so that she benefited from all that reflection. (See her interviewed about this time here.)

Whatever the case, I was taken immediately with her melodic skill in the title track. But, oh, the clever lyrics too! Let me share the opening chorus and first stanza.

You’re like Chinese boxes
One inside the other
Inside the other
One inside the other one

You’re smoke and mirrors—plastic flowers
Magic spells, misdirection
Smoke and mirrors—plastic flowers.

This tune feels like an incantation: she’s trying to summon her love, but can’t locate the essence.

The other song that especially knocks me out is “Something to Say.” It’s a meditation on the “cobwebs” that entrap us and prevent us from accessing our joy. She is speaking so directly here, and I’m mesmerized because this is exactly how I feel in my moments of reflection.

Some days I look outside my window
Wonder where the time goes
Why I throw it away

One day I’ll tie up all the loose ends
Ring up my best friends
And have something to say
When all the pieces fall into place . . .

Richey delivers these sentiments not in a stark, acoustic-guitar only, navel-gazing way, but in a lovely arrangement with a soft musical cushion provided by drums, percussion, electric guitar, flutes, and even a Rhodes!

It’s hard for me to contain my enthusiasm for Kim Richey, but since I don’t wish to dampen your interest by prattling on, I’ll end here. Download some of her songs, look for her on tour—we need to support artistry like this!