Thursday, May 27, 2010

Run, don't 'Walk' for Miller's latest

This strange dissociative thing comes over me when I listen to "Walk," Byfield cellist Kristen Miller's new album. It's like she's whispering in my ear, reminding me of things we have always known, hard-learned lessons that have been all but lost in the maddening rush the present, the incessant tedium of life's details. It's like catching up with an old friend in a way. But, somehow, it feels wrong, like I'm somewhere I'm not supposed to be — lurking in the shadows, ear cocked toward the confessional, eavesdropping. Not that any great secrets are being betrayed. The stories are lyrical studies in contrast and paradox, seemingly small, but significant situations that are closely observed, unfolding in front of you, the details emerging in relief. It's poetry that feels like prose. Songs about longing, love, and loss. Urgent fictions, mostly, situations that ring true, that have a terrible sense of immediacy, familiarity. You know these people, even if you've never met them, even though their stories are not completely drawn. Miller sketches, drops a few hints and lets the listeners fill in the details. 

All of the stories are layered over music that defies easy categorization, that mixes world beat rhythms and Eastern melodies with rock attitude, vocabulary and a beat, or performance art, sensibility — an amazingly evocative sonic landscape that somehow, impossibly, is done with a light, understated touch. It's easy to lose your way in a world like this.The new album, which will be released next month at the Firehouse, is very different from her last, 2006's "Strange Little Valentine," which included a unique cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," which seems to have been the inspiration for pretty boy Adam Lambert's rendition on American Idol — and startlingly different from what the album was supposed to be in the first place. Which was supposed to be mostly instrumental and mostly classical. She walked into the first sessions last August with four songs ready to go and was expecting to bang 'em out and have close to half an album in the bag. It didn't work out that way. In fact, none of them even made it onto the disc, the thrill of the musical chase, plus an intuitive sense that there was more to be had winning out over practical efficiencies. Or, to quote Miller on the title track, talking about something else entirely, “I didn't look before I crossed, and I crashed straight into you."

And, on this album, that means crashing into listeners from any number of directions — from the frenetic, insistent ”Standing,” an instrumental with soaring, swelling cello lines, to the now-trademark "cellobrew," a style that formed the backbone of her last two albums, in “Don’t Speak,” to the heartbreakingly sad “Lilacs,” with a mournful melody that demands some sort of human response. The album also includes two covers, both pretty dark — “Deep Waters," the old Brian King/What Time is It, Mr. Fox? tune about attraction and obsession, and the Eurythmics' “Sweet Dreams,” a still-vibrant warning. The songs may be about longing, love and loss, but they're also about illumination and acceptance, ultimately, letting go. The album is about transitions and movement, from the opener, "Walk Don't Walk," to "Away," which closes the album. A diverse palette of musical colors serves as a springboard for crisp, vivid writing, often using sensory details to paint a picture without giving away the store: A boat that reeks “of salt, of sweat, of yesterday's smoke, this morning's coffee, stone cold, half drunk, likely bitter.” Or lilacs “that hang low on their branches, damp with dew, heavy in bloom, their leaves whisper your name, it's all that's left of you here.” A crisp, nuanced production by Tom Eaton, whose recording roster includes Vance Gilbert, Ellis Paul and Melissa Ferrick, at Universal Noise Storage in Newburyport.

The album closes with two instrumentals — “November,” as mournful as the month, and the beautiful, engaging “Away,” which somehow reminds me of Joyce, the closing lines of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Away. Away. The spell of arms and voice: the white arms of roads, their promise of close embraces and the black arms of tall ships that stand against the moon, their tale of distant nations.” It seems a punctuation point at the end of a journey. It lifts you up, carries you away, leaves you in a better spot. It makes you want to run, not walk, to next show.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Byfield cellist Kristin Miller will host two release parties for "Walk," her new album. The first will be at 8 p.m. June 12 at the Firehouse Center. Tickets are $24, or $22 for students and SDAH members. For more information, call 978-426-7336. The second show will be at 7:30 p.m. June 13 at Cape Ann Community Cinema, 21 Main St., Gloucester. That's the second floor of the Mystery Train building. She will also play a live in-studio set from 4 to 5 p.m. June 18 at WSCA-FM in Portsmouth, N.H.

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