Ingrid Karklins,
Red Hand
(Willow Music, 1997)

It begins with a brief, descriptive invocation -- "Night's mouth held the morning / In a gentle, cool embrace" -- before proceeding into a spoken/sung charm from Dobu Island used "at a ceremonial bathing to make one beautiful and irresistible." It combines Ingrid Karklins' resonant voice with a minimal piano score, an effective combination for the words of rebirth.

"Incantation" is the first track on Karklins' latest album, Red Hand, a CD released on her own Willow label and packaged beautifully with the singer's handmade paper and, yes, a blood-red hand print on the cover. (Unless I'm very much mistaken, this is a real hand print, not a reproduction, and I'm going to naively assume that it's hers. Makes ya wonder how widely this album is being distributed, and how tired her hand got making album covers.)

While I found Karklins' album Anima Mundi to be good but somewhat lacking in originality after its landmark predecessor, A Darker Passion, Red Hand makes up for lost time.

"Incantation" leads straight into the title song, "Red Hand," a Karklins original adding Steve Bernal on bass, Thor on percussion and Craig No. 7 on "curiously strong guitar." (Where, I found myself wondering, did the first six Craigs disappear to?) Although still featuring minimal instrumentation, the tune gets the toe tapping despite starts and stops in the rhythm, and it's a good introduction to the singer's distinctive vocal style as well as her evocative, stream-of-consciousness poetry.

The three musicians, collected under the group heading of Backbone, are Karklins' only accompaniment on this album -- besides her own piano, keyboards, violin and kokle -- meaning sparser arrangements than are found on her earlier recordings. Nor do they join her throughout, so don't come here looking for a big, full sound -- but do come here to listen, because the sound they produce is worth hearing.

"Ritual" and "Ik vakara" both draw inspiration from Latvian sources. The former, also owing its existence in part to a Seri song, suggests that people move beyond the passive rituals which ask a higher power to handle their needs and rely instead on active rituals -- for instance, the sowing of seeds -- which help bring about those solutions. The latter is a vocal-only tune, the only on Red Hand to be sung entirely in Latvian, using a brief chorus of Karklins to paint a simple, peaceful image.

A portion of "Leap of Faith" is based on a Malayan pantun and urges an open acceptance of the future. "Dreams" is a musical postcard, but the atmosphere dredged up by Karklins' intonations begs the listener to look beyond the shiny picture of Italy on the front.

"Raga" is a slow, introspective piece made up of stream-of-consciousness musings about a romantic choice. Despite using the full Backbone ensemble on this one (this time, Craig No. 7 plays "random guitar"), you'd hardly know they were there. They simply provide a flowing landscape upon which Karklins makes her decision.

"Your voice becomes whispery and thick as silk," she sings at the start of "Another Heart" -- "As soft and gentle as an unfolding flower / Your poet's heart / Is finally feeling through your skin." But there's more than one heart at stake in this song, which seamlessly blends her words and music with a Scottish traditional chorus and a Latvian long dance melody. As for "vocal chord" ... well, that's exactly what that track is. Umpty-eleven layers of Karklins' voice going "ahh" for 14 seconds. Oddly, it kinda works. I think it would have worked better as a vocal soundscape of slightly greater duration.

"Rant" consists of a single line, repeated over and over again for 93 seconds. (This must be the "short takes" section of the album.) She's not just chanting the words "Give me a reason to live" as a rote regurgitation, however; she sings each line as if the words were different and, perhaps, the meaning is different throughout.

The next song is a bit meatier. "Riddle" (at a whopping 4:50) sets excerpts from Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man" among Karklins' own enigmatic, sometimes strident lyrics, a strong piano and bass line, and snippets of melody from a Latvian summer solstice song. A strange mix that is strangely evocative, this quickly became one of my favorite tracks on the album.

"Still" is a brief, subtly romantic, five-line poem sung over a sparse piano backdrop. "Know" is a longer song, consisting only of a romantic four-line poem and a lot of "Mmm-mmm" harmonies, plus a flowing violin line, very active bass and percussion layers, and the elusive Craig No. 7, now playing the "prozac guitar" and, um, spark plug wrench. The album ends with "Hound of Heaven," a voice and piano duet which radiates loneliness.

Karklins is relying less on her Latvian roots on this album than she has in the past, although influences are still evident. Still, she's proven she doesn't need that hook; her skills as a composer, lyricist and arranger are fully developed enough to churn out creative work without drawing as much from her traditional sources. Still, I hope she never loses touch with those roots entirely. It's a hook which, while not entirely necessary, still carries enough charm to warrant holding onto for a while longer.

But the passion of her voice, the complexity of her writing and the depth of her music are all here, shimmering with the radiant glow of an artist who knows exactly what she wants to do, and is doing it. Karklins' music is an intensely personal experience, not a marketing package -- musical poetry which insists that listeners work a little bit to draw meaning from the words. In an industry where musicians are polished, packaged and shipped like so many assembly-line dolls, Karklins stands out as a refreshing original.

[ by Tom Knapp ]