(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

CD review - Kaiser Cartel, Secret Transit (2010)

Courtney Kaiser and Benjamin Cartel have created a bubble of retro magic for their songs to thrive in. On Secret Transit, Kaiser Cartel arranged their guitar and drums into deceptively simple gems. This studio album is more layered than they had in their live performance, but it retains the focus of beautiful harmonies and raw, yet beautiful instrumental arrangements.

Kaiser Cartel's vocal sound refers back to groups like the Mamas and the Papas, but the overall sound is much closer to The Trinity Session era Cowboy Junkies. It comes down to that ethereal, expressive female voice, drifting through a thick, misty reverberation, accompanied by down tempo instrumental simplicity. Kaiser has a bit of Margo Timmons' soothing sound and Karen Carpenter's raw emotion. Cartel's harmonies are perfectly supportive. Despite being relatively clean and smooth, the music is primitive: it's truthful, with no grandstanding. That's how they evoke that '60s aesthetic, as well as a bit of the Velvet Underground and the Pretenders.

That's easiest to hear on Carroll Street Station or Worn Out Nervous Condition (John Mellancamp). Both songs are basically plain, but filled with nice touches of backup vocal parts and tiny breaks. Taking it even further, Wherever You Go like the Cowboy Junkies' cover of the the Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane.

One of my favorite songs is the wistful Stella. It feels like a late summer night, sitting up alone. It's touching and sweetly reassuring at the same time. Even though there's no steel work, I can't help but think of Sleep Walk. The arrangement gets fuller by the end. Again, the vocals sound like the Mamas and the Papas, but the music is purer.

Secret Transit has some snappier tunes, too. Ready To Go takes their familiar formula and kicks up the tempo. At this tempo, you can hear a power pop influence. Track by track, though, the whole album is a warm, enveloping cocoon. Warm up a hot buttered rum and settle in.

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