Kris Delmhorst,
Five Stories
(Big Bean, 2001)

I don't tend to think that press kits tell lies. Sure, their writers may practice hyperbole and take certain phrases out of context from previous reviews to make the artists seem even more attractive to future reviewers, but basic biographical information tends to be accurate. I want to doubt Boston-based singer-songwriter Kris Delmhorst's biography, however. According to it, she only started playing guitar six years ago.

Just six years ago? I saw her play with Catie Curtis two years ago, and while she's no Leo Kottke, she was fine backing Curtis, and her solo bit on that tour was exquisite. She won last summer's Telluride Bluegrass Festival's Troubadour Competition. Now, a mere six years down the road from when she first starting learning to play guitar, she's released her second CD, Five Stories, a collection of songs that builds on her debut album Appetite.

This new CD was recorded in the late Mark Sandman's loft (from Morphine), and Dana Colley, Billy Conway and Paul Q. Kolderie, who have worked with Morphine in one way or another, contributed their skills ranging from performing to co-producing the album. The disk's opener, "Cluck Old Hen," takes Delmhorst away from the reflective folk-inspired songs for which she's known. It has a country feel to match its "down-home" lyrics, but it's blended with a hard edge beat that matches the meaning behind those innocent-sounding words. Some Morphine influence? Perhaps, but she also breaks lose later as her solo electric guitar sets off against various percussion instruments on "Honeyed Out," and Eric Royer's banjo takes her down country roads on "Mean Old Wind."

While Delmhorst experiments with different genres, she mostly concentrates on thoughtful, singer-songwriter type numbers. She follows up her surprising, yet successful, opening track with "Damn Love Song," a gentle piece about finding love. Her cello (Delmhorst plays cello, guitar, organ, and piano on this release) and Jake Beyer's accordion echo her questions about love.

Her voice hits you first, however. Its light silvery tones feel delicate at first, but they're far from fragile. Her phrasing on "Yellow Brick Road" sounds vaguely like Suzanne Vega until she reaches the chorus. The way she slides in and out of her upper and lower ranges is reminiscent of Catie Curtis, Jennifer Kimball and Jonatha Brooke. Conveniently, both Curtis and Kimball contribute backing vocals to Five Stories. Kimball and Delmhorst blend their voices nicely on "Broken White Line" and "Gave It Away," while Curtis joins her own former back-up singer on "Words Fail You." However, the words are integral parts of these songs; Delmhorst wraps her voice around both them and their meanings.

On "Damn Love Song," the lines transcend clichˇs about love. "After all these years, is the time drawing near when a love song flies from my throat? Can I lay down the weight of the world on the side of the road? Lay down the weight of the world and call myself home?" This one isn't a love song for those barely post-adolescent performers. On "Broken White Line," a song about the love that almost was, she sings that "sometimes I see your picture and I turn it to the wall cause you are a cliff / and I know how to fall." "Words Fail You" concerns a love who's "hatching out a hurricane, trying it to keep it all from me." While the chorus may seem predictable ("I know that words fail you and I know sometimes I do too"), it's still poignant.

The stand-out song, though, in terms of songwriting, has to be "Little Wings." It features an almost hypnotic constant rhythm; its persistence helps drives home her message: "I don't want to rip the skies wide open, I just want my song to be heard."

In "Little Wings," Delmhorst states that she doesn't "want to be a jet airliner"; she just wants "to be a little bird." At this point, she is still a little bird in terms of the singer-songwriter scene, but she may have to learn how to handle bigger wings in the future. After all, she's managed to become a capable guitarist in only six years. She just may be on the fast track.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 19 January 2002

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