Kate Brislin / Katy Moffatt - Sleepless Nights
My friends Kate Brislin and Jody Stecher just visited and gave me a copy of the new Kate Brislin/Katy Moffatt duet record on Rounder, "Sleepless Nights" (Rounder CD 0374). Before waxing eloquent, let me admit first off that I am not an objective reviewer. Kate and Jody have been pals and musical favorites of mine for years, and, as a young twerp musician growing up in California, I absorbed much of my own musical aesthetic from the Bay Area traditional music scene within which they were strong influences. Some of the songs on this album I first heard in those youthful days. Having said that...
This is one of the best harmony singing albums I've heard; it's the kind of album that becomes an old friend almost overnight, that you want to listen to again and again. The choice of material, ranging from Everly Brothers, Louvin Brothers, and other songs of that vintage along with a couple of Katy's originals, are like a window on a golden era of American song-writing. The songs are crafted like small gems, not only a delight for the ear but a kind of crash course for any modern songwriters (like myself) who respect and want to learn more about the tradition of songwriting that pre-dates the Beatles. The title cut, "Sleepless Nights" has a chord progression I might have written in my dreams.
The singing is honest, direct, ringing true with every note. The voices blend yet remain differentiated, so that the many crossed-line harmonies delight the ear even more. Katy has a Texas country voice with no hint of pretension, unlike the many poseurs one hears in commercial country these days. Though she learned a lot of new repertoire from Kate for this album, she has absorbed the style and atmostphere of these songs and made them completely her own. Katy's own songs, (including my favorite, "I'm Still Blue") fit the rest of the repertoire perfectly. Not many young songwriters today can write in a clear traditional genre and still speak in an authentic and not "quotational" (or worse, mocking) voice. Katy does this without trying (probably without thinking about it!); her songs are from the heart, shining through clarity and economy of form.
Kate Brislin gets a chance to shine on this album in a way that reflects her contribution to the Kate and Jody duet sound, yet reveals new depths. There's a kind of contemplative purity, a "front-porch Zen" to her singing, as if, in the most traditional sense, she is really letting the song, the sound and the words come through her like a welcomed guest; whether that song is an old mountain ballad or the more modern "brother" songs on this album. The harmonies she finds resonate in the listener's ear throughout the day, always fresh and a bit unexpected, yet as right as a partner's familiar hand slipping into yours on a Sunday afternoon walk. Hearing the two voices together is magic, even when heard from another room of our house.
Jody Stecher produced the album and plays wonderful, understated guitar and mandolin leads throughout. Some virtuosos have to let you know who's boss now and then. Jody is too great a musician for that nonsense on this album, and does the right thing time after time; there is love in every plaintive golden tone that echoes the singer's turn of phrase; love in every note he doesn't play. The production is a classic of the West Coast/Bay Records "dry and faithful" aesthetic that works so well for old-time traditional music, and transforms music of this vintage in unexpected ways. Even the amount of reverb and EQ used subtly evokes a 40's sound, while never getting derivative. Jody told me he had ear trouble when mixing the album, and, perfectionist that he is, would have done some things differently. All I can say is, Jody with a head-cold has more sensitive ears than most of us with a New Year's Day hangover.
There's nothing "as if" about this album; it is the genuine article, subtle, tasteful, timeless, alive and quietly kicking. I love it now, and expect to be loving it years from now.
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