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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1432

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Jennifer Kimball: Oh Hear Us
by George Graham

(Epoisse Records 1094 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/8/2006)

Back in the late 1980s there was a brief period when intelligent singer-songwriters enjoyed some success on the commercial pop music scene. Suzane Vega and Tracy Chapman had some unexpected hits, and that paved the way for some major labels to sign artists other than trendy, video-driven pop bands. One of the beneficiaries of that was a superb duo of women who called themselves The Story. Together since the early 1980s when both were students at Amherst College, Jonatha Brooke and Jennifer Kimball released their first recording in the late 1980s on the independent Celtic-oriented label Green Linnet Records. They created multi-layered compositions performed with some amazing two-part vocal harmonies. The duo were picked up by Elektra Records and soon found themselves making videos for VH1, and were featured prominently in the Lilith Fair tours of women artists in the early 1990s. The Story released two CDs together, but in 1994, Ms. Kimball decided to exit the group. She is quoted as saying "I had to take that step off the edge -- into the nothingness -- to get myself out of a creative black hole." Ms. Brooke carried on, first calling her work "Jonatha Brooke and the Story" and then continuing to work as a solo. At around the same time, Ms. Kimball went through a divorce, and apparently her long friendship with Ms. Brooke came to an end.

In 1998 Ms. Kimball finally released her first album on her own, which got some good press, and did have major-label distribution.

Now, after another period of turmoil in her life, in which she suddenly lost her mother to cancer in 2002, and shortly after, became a mother, Ms. Kimball is out with her second solo recording, called Oh Hear Us, and one can say it was worth the wait.

Interestingly, Ms. Kimball recorded this CD in 2003, at the time she was pregnant, and was still very much feeling the loss of her mother. That became a theme of this album. Now that she is ready to resume performing, the CD is being released.

Oh Hear Us, which is a line from a hymn that Ms. Kimball reinvents for inclusion in the album, was produced by versatile Boston area guitarist Duke Levine, known for his work with Mary Chapin Carpenter, though Levine has also added his musical and production skills to several other noteworthy singer-songwriter recordings. Musically, Oh Hear Us is rather wide-ranging, from almost pop-oriented to spacey and brooding, with a little old-fashioned pre-rock influence like Tin Pan Alley. In fact, she includes a song made famous by Bing Crosby. But like the music of Story, Ms. Kimball's work invokes poetic, often oblique lyrics, with tuneful compositions, often with a degree of musical complexity uncommon among singer-songwriters. Like the best in the genre, these are songs that may take several listenings to divine their lyrical meaning, and also reveal new instrumental and sonic facets each time they are heard, even though the arrangements are ostensibly simple and relatively spare.

Also appearing on the CD are Paul Bryan, who has worked with Aimee Mann, on bass and various keyboards; Jay Bellarose and Shawn Pelton, of the Saturday Night Live Band on drums; plus multi-instrumentalist Kevin Barry on various more exotic string instruments. Producer Levine is a strong presence with his gamut of guitar sounds. Ms. Kimball is heard on both guitar and piano.

The CD opens with Can't Climb Up, a track with one of the most upbeat musical arrangements, though its oblique lyrics are hardly full of happiness. <<>>

With a slightly more melancholy sound is Don't Take Your Love Away, inspired by the act of saving someone's personal possessions from a flood, and in the process of drying them out, going over the old love letters of someone close, and learning things not known. <<>>

One of the more playful songs on the album is Is He Or Isn't He, about speculating on an attractive man encountered in a bar. <<>>

The album's title comes from a line of the song Eternal Father, based on the lyrics of an old hymn. It's given a very creative new musical setting, with an almost spookily atmospheric sound. <<>>

Ms. Kimball's eulogy to her mother comes on the song Last Ride Home, which is another of the album's more creative and eclectic stylistic combinations, hinting at an old spiritual, yet also exhibiting an ethereal sound, with a slightly incongruous steel guitar. <<>>

In a more positive lyrical mood is When I was Lost, a love song that features a guest appearance by fellow Boston area singer-songwriter Merrie Amsterburg with whom Ms. Kimball wrote the song. <<>>

Also taking a somewhat more upbeat lyrical direction is Lightning Bugs, about drawing inspiration from the randomness of the appearance of the flashing insects. <<>>

The CD ends with Ms. Kimball's version of Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams a classic Tin Pan Alley song, given a suitably nostalgic musical setting, with an old-fashioned sounding electric guitar, plus some steel guitar throwing in a little country music curve. <<>>

Jennifer Kimball's new CD, Oh Hear Us, only her second since she left The Story almost 12 years ago, is a fine recording that highlights her outstanding songwriting, something that was not so evident in the Story, most of whose songs were written by Jonatha Brooke. Her vocals remain as appealing as ever, and the production and arrangements by Duke Levine are superb. It's the epitome of what a singer-songwriter recording should strive for -- memorable songs and singing, and music that can reveal new facets at each hearing.

Sonically the album is also commendable. Ms. Kimball's vocals are nicely recorded, and the different sonic treatments of each song, from spacey to old-fashioned, are skillfully handled and give the album additional interest. Through all that, there's good clarity and the dynamic range is decent. Most of the album as mixed by Paul Q. Kolderie, who has worked with Radiohead and the band Morphine.

Jennifer Kimball is not the most prolific artist on the scene, and each of her two CDs followed a period of personal crisis. Despite her combination of personal loss and the joy of birth, Oh Hear Us is a recording that explores range of moods, and does it superbly. Let's hope that it does not take another upheaval in Ms. Kimball's life for her to make more of her fine music.

(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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