Saturday, June 23, 2012

She's the Kats Pajamas!

What a wonder Kat Edmonson is. Not yet out of her twenties, she has forged a sound that is unique while it skims the surface of a boatload of musical references. After a few notes of hearing her, you'll immediately think Blossom Dearie. But other singers will come to mind as you continue to listen. Here's how Nate Chinen put it in The New York Times.

Trawling for a current reference point, you might come up with Madeleine Peyroux or Melody Gardot, or the softer side of Nellie McKay. Looking further back, you’d probably land on Blossom Dearie, who sang in the same girlish register as Ms. Edmonson, with a similar timbre and sublimated wit...
The singer relates in her biography that Nina Simone is a primary influence. One can hear Simone in the way that she leaps vocally from a light girlish tone to a full-bodied lower register to end a phrase. 

Her sophomore release, Way Down Low, has brought her much attention, especially from NPR and Steve Greenlee of The Boston Globe, who calls the album "one of the greatest vocal albums I've ever heard." Here's more of his gushing. 
...after listening to “Way Down Low” several dozen times over the past couple of months and never tiring of a single song on it, I say this with confidence: If Kat Edmonson were singing in the 1940s or ’50s, her name would be mentioned alongside those of Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Julie London, and Anita O’Day — maybe even Billie Holiday.
I'm not willing to go as far as Greenlee, but I will declare Kat Edmonson as a refreshing new supporter of the vocal tradition that he references. Let's think about this landscape for a moment.
You've got Michael Buble. Great sense of swing, he captures an audience longing for that Sinatra vibe while occasionally dipping into songs of a more contemporary vintage. Diana Krall is an accomplished pianist who tastefully renders standards and phrases beautifully. (I listen to her like I'd listen to Carmen McRae.) Madeleine Peyroux initially excited jazz listeners with her Billie Holiday-flavored voice, but she has carved out a niche designed to obscure that memory. Melody Gardot brings Peggy Lee to mind with her first two releases. Her catalogue doesn't feature many standards, but her songs resemble them. 
Kat Edmonson sounds like a singer from the sixties. (I was think of the TV show Mad Men when I'm listening to her. It must be not only the musical styles she employs, but also the melancholy that is at the heart of most of her presentation.) She's comfortable in the vernaculars of calypso, bossa nova, swing. In a chameleon-like fashion she threads through these styles, and then she puts the brakes on with very slow-paced renditions of Brian Wilson's "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" and "Whispering Grass", a song popularized by the Ink Spots. They are striking surprises in the musical program. You hang on to her words, and Kat never disappoints.
She's an accomplished songwriter who pens songs that sound like standards. "What Else Can I Do" begins with this imagery:
What else can I do
But to sit and think of you
And how love walked through that door
And moved boldly across the floor
But love's not here anymore
What else can I do?
Gershwin's "Love Walked In" comes immediately to mind with this inro. Or consider the opening of "This Was the One".
It wasn't planned
Taking her hand to cross the street
Was as natural a thing as he'd ever done
He knew what had begun
She was the one.
She was the one.
Isn't that lovely? No longer can I go around saying, "No one writes these sentiments anymore. Where is the love in the music you hear today? The refined and delicate feeling?" It's with Kat!
My only complaint about this CD is that it drags at the end. The last three tracks are very drawn out, and her slow delivery starts to grate. Kat must take care with her pacing, although she certainly did for most of the CD.
An electric new talent is here! Check out this elfin enchantress. You'll be gushing like Greenlee before long and thanking the Lord that the vocal arts are alive and breathing!
Here's Kat doing 'Lucky", the opening song from Way Down Low.
Also, here she is performing "Hopelessly Blue", also from the CD.
If you want a full shot of the Blossom Dearie influence, check out "Champagne". Every time I hear this song I can't help thinking that Kat was getting her Cole Porter on with this number. 
Finally here's Kat doing a slower version of "I Don't Know". It ends the CD on too much of a downer to my ears. Enjoyed the sprightlier version of the song when it first appears on Track 2.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Music on the Road

How do you bring your music along on a long car trip? Depends on what you're driving, I suppose. Our car is a 2005 model, so it lacks a port for my iPhone or iPod. Once my wife and I attempted to feed our iPods through the radio, but it was terribly unsatisfying and only worked fitfully. So, as we hastily packed, I included a CD carrier that I'd used a couple of years before and hadn't cleared out along with a handful of CDs either purchased or checked out from the library.

Both Lisa and I found our tolerance waning the deeper that we got into a CD, no matter who the artist. We are still very much in a long-playing state of mind at home, rarely purchasing music piecemeal, but as a captive audience, and with the need for the music to keep us hyper-stimulated on the drive, we found we tired of an artist about halfway into the CD. "We need a change," one of us would say, and never was there a strong counter-argument.

 The most problematic listens for a long drive are the vocalists. As you know, I live for hearing a skilled vocal performance, but being hypnotized by Doris Day's graceful glissandos on various vowel sounds is not recommended for keeping your eye on the dotted lines of the interstate. Esperanza Spalding sounded terrific, but soon after putting her on I knew that we had to change the selection. Much too mellow for our needs.

 Instead we took a shot of Fountains of Wayne. Ah, some straight "power pop" that we could sing along to as the miles went by. Perfect! I then popped in K. T. Tunstall's new release. She was completely unfamiliar to me, but I found it terrific for driving. Every song brought a new rhythmic approach, and it was all very energetic.

One thing that I love about a vacation is that you wear out the music that you do bring. Sure, I've got my iPod, and Lisa has her iTunes library on the laptop, but mostly we use the old technology: the CDs that I have packed in the carrier, and the ones still in their cases, with their booklets to enjoy. In a way, I love being a captive audience to the CD that I put in our car player. Every insertion seems like a dive into a pool. How's the opening track? Did it catch your interest? Well, I'm into it, but what about my wife seated next to me?

 It's fun to also play DJ. While Lisa drove, I pulled out CDs and played favorite tracks from them, prefacing each song with an introduction of some sort. She seemed to enjoy this approach, as did our young boys. I can't listen to books as I drive because my mind wanders, but music seems just right—after the signal for NPR goes out, that is. It's a deep comfort for me to revisit CDs that I've purchased and to muse upon the passage of time, not only for the artist but for me, the faithful listener.

 Happy trails and terrific music to everyone who hits the road this summer!