As is the case with most of the musicians in this massive yet incredibly small town, I know just about all of the other players in one context or another. I have either performed or recorded with them, reviewed their albums or have taught (or been taught) by them. And so it goes with songwriter Katie Grace Helow. We’ve known each other for years, both in and outside of our respective musical careers, and I have reviewed her music in the past. All this is to say that, in the interest of full disclosure, Katie and I are friends.
But as with all of the friends ballsy enough to send me their music for review, I’ll give Katie the full going-over, because what’s the point, otherwise? Friends never benefit from dishonesty, even if it saves their feelings, and I have a very low tolerance for bullshit – given or received. And so we dig into Helow’s forthcoming album Past Lives (due out mid-November). See, I even switched to using her last name, so I won’t feel so bad when it comes time to drop the hatchet.
Immediately I am struck by the aggression of her new work. Helow has proved herself a solid songwriter in the neo-folk tradition, with lots of non-threatening strumming and sweet vocalizing. But right out of the gate on Past Lives, she lurches into “Savior or Sin” with an upbeat and dark acoustic picking pattern. It’s stark and striking, soon bleeding into distorted guitar blasts and thick bass accents, something that’s been absent from her previous work. Think early Fleetwood Mac on this one.
“Left for Dead” ticks it up a few more notches, all full band and Neil Young-y grunge. Helow’s voice is lilting as always, but there’s an angry (is that the right word?) subtext that’s pleasantly surprising. This may be the result of her new collaboration with songwriting partner Zach Lever. It’s a volatile mix.
“Classic Combination” features Lever’s tremoloed twang behind Helow’s simmering vocal lines, and though this one is a bit more predictable, it is nonetheless satisfying if simply for the restrained but moody guitar solo. Next is “The Scales (part I),” which might as well be a slightly modified version “Savior or Sin” as the guitar is structured much the same way. This one is a little more dynamic, though, and there’s the old-and-reliable freight-train snare pattern added after the first verse, giving a little more heft. But “Scales I” is largely dispensable. “The Scales (part II)” is structurally unrelated, and sounds more like Helow’s older material, very melodic and open, giving plenty of room for her lovely voice. With this in mind, one “Scales” would have done the trick.
I’m gonna skip a couple of tunes to tell you about “Arm’s Length,” probably the best song on the record. Opening with a spaghetti Western twanged-out lead guitar and moving headlong into some interesting chord changes for the chorus – all supported by a variation on the aforementioned freight-train snare line – this one is the “least Helow” on the record. Accompanied vocally by Lever in the chorus, and bolstered by his very Tarantinoesque guitar soloing, “Arm’s Length” goes for it. Helow and Lever both shine, and the result is laudable.
The title and penultimate track is the longest on the album, and the closest to a love song. Which makes it not my favorite. But I don’t hate it, either. But I don’t love it. Which I guess means I like it, but not enough to dissect it. But that doubled-vocal line is pretty cool. But dammit, the chord progression is more predictable than I’d like. It gets a little heavier near the end, which is nice, but that’s five minutes into its seven-minute running time, too long to wait for that build-up. Crap, I just dissected it.
Past Lives winds down with “Other Side,” which focuses on Helow’s guitar-playing, a nice Nancy Wilson-meets-wayward-cowboy vibe. She’s solo here, like the old days, and it makes for a nice closer. The rumbly low end of her acoustic guitar is meaty and full, lending a muddy background to her honeyed voice. Lyrically in keeping with most of the songs on the record, it’s biting but hopeful, at once simple and complex.
Kind of like Katie.