The Graham Weekly Album Review #1024

Barbara Kessler: NOTION -- by George Graham

(Eastern Front Records 110 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/10/96)

For the last decade, singer-songwriters have become more numerous, in part as a result of the popularity of Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman during the mid 1980s which inspired a lot of performers and nascent musicians to take up an acoustic guitar and a pen and set poetry to music. Over the past few years, there has been a figurative explosion in the number of albums released by singer-songwriters. While there have been plenty of forgettable artists in the field, the number of worthwhile so-called folkies appearing with albums has been truly impressive. It seems that virtually every week yet another outstanding singer-songwriter record will come along. It's gotten to the point that the standards have become very high.

This week we have yet another fine recording by an artist in the category, Barbara Kessler. It's her second CD entitled Notion.

The 34-year old Kessler is a native of Long Island and took up the guitar at age four. But in college, her career goal was to be a professional negotiator, and pursued a degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University. After graduation, she did a good deal of travelling throughout the US and in the South Pacific, New Zealand and Australia before settling in the Seattle area, where she began to return to making music. Known in recent years for its grunge scene, Seattle has long harbored a rich folk community. Kessler held down "day jobs" as a counsellor and working in sex education for teenagers. Like many folkies of her generation, Ms. Kessler was influenced by Suzanne Vega's debut recording in 1985, and also cites especially a live performance she saw by blues and folk artist Rory Block as inspiring her as to the possibilities of expression in her own music.

Kessler moved to Massachusetts in the summer of 1986, and settled in Boston five years later to concentrate more fully on her music, and to take in Boston's burgeoning folk scene. Since then she has been winning lots of acclaim and taking away prizes at various songwriter competitions in New England. She appeared on Fast Folk compilations and was tapped by Christine Lavin for the two Martha's Vineyard singer-songwriter workshop albums she produced.

After independently releasing a live cassette album in 1992, followed by a well-received CD in 1994 entitled Stranger To This Land, Ms. Kessler is now out with Notion. With somewhat wider distribution, it is a recording that will hopefully will bring to bigger audiences the music of this impressive talent, who has all the good traits one looks for in a world-class singer-songwriter -- a fine, expressive voice, a literate poetic lyrical style, and musical approach that ranges from solo acoustic to very 1990s electric.

Ms. Kessler has also attracted an formidable supporting cast. Notion's producer was drummer Jerry Marotta, who has worked with Peter Gabriel and Suzanne Vega. On bass is Tony Levin known for his work with Gabriel and King Crimson. Another Vega associate Marc Shulman plays some of the guitars, with others played by Duke Levine who has worked extensively with Jane Siberry, another of the bright lights on the music scene. Kessler herself plays most of the acoustic guitars. The album also has a return appearance by Jennifer Kimball who was half of the Story, the Boston folk duo. When they were together they sang backup vocals on Ms. Kessler's Stranger To This Land. So the new album features some fine musicianship and eclectic arrangement ideas, in addition to Ms. Kessler's first-rate songs.

In some ways Notion is reminiscent of the recent work of another fine up-and-coming singer-songwriter from the Bay State, Patty Larkin, in both vocal approach and in the way the album can sometimes rock. At other times, Kessler can remind one of Joni Mitchell's For the Roses period in the early 1970s when she was just starting to get jazzy. Marotta also bring on some of the quirky sonic touches that have marked Suzanne Vega's recent work, though by no means to the same extent.

Notion's eleven songs tend not to be particularly wordy, but like a good poet, Kessler makes her lyrics sometimes vague enough to be subject to a number of interpretations and at the same time make some fairly profound, or at least insightful observations.

The album begins with one of its most electric tracks, That Hurricane. The song with its sleek and vaguely bluesy sound works a common metaphor into observations about relationships. <<>>

One of the most lyrically appealing songs is called At My Age, whose consideration of the irreversibility of passage of time in one's life will provide something with which both Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers might identify. <<>>

There are two tracks on Notion that are new versions of songs Ms. Kessler included on her last album. The Date (Making Mountains Out of Molehills), is the only piece on Notion performed in a solo acoustic context. It's another excellent example of writing about the perennial song topic of the vagaries of personal relationships. <<>>

The other song reprised is Kathy, a fascinating set of lyrics about meeting an old friend who finds herself in a bad relationship the nature of which is only hinted at in the song. <<>>

Equally intriguing is Jane's Last Day, an upbeat-sounding song whose lyrics might be about a woman who was about to commit suicide unbeknownst to her friends. <<>>

Another rocky track, apparently from a different recording session with different musicians in attendance is called Me, seemingly about a performer full of herself. <<>>

The title piece Notion is one of the album's more nondescript tracks. It's another rather introspective love song that nevertheless is tastefully performed. <<>>

The track that especially reminds me of Joni Mitchell is Forever Haunted, with its musically interesting tune and equivocal lyrics about ending an affair but with regret. <<>>

Barbara Kessler's new album Notion marks yet another fine singer-songwriter release in what is getting to be a very crowded field, not just crowded with singer-songwriters, but with very good ones, many of them, incidentally from Kessler's home base of Boston. What sets her apart is her appealing and versatile vocal style, along with the especially fine backing musicians and the work of producer Jerry Marotta, who provide an interesting folky and up-to-date rocky backing on the CD which help both to emphasize, and occasionally to contrast with the mood of the words. The result is the kind record that will likely win her more of fans and kind of critical accolade that has greeted her previous work with its more limited distribution.

Sonically, the album is nicely mixed, with a pleasing freedom from excessive compression, and with electronic effects used well and appropriately. The mix engineer was Mark Tanzer in Boston, though much of the album was recorded in Woodstock, NY.

Fans of singer-songwriters looking for worthy new talent can will find much to enjoy on Barbara Kessler's Notion.

This is George Graham.

(c) Copyright 1996 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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