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

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Recording review - Naama Kates, The Unexamined Life (2012)

A unique aesthetic of theatrical vignettes, piano pop, and some deep retro sounds

It seems appropriate that Naama Kates' debut, The Unexamined Life is rooted in theatricality. I get the sense that her musical taste is thoroughly integrated with her background in acting. The album pulls a lot from early Kate Bush (like There Goes a Tenner) and Tori Amos' artier songs. But unlike most of the women influenced by Bush and Amos, Kates doesn't affect the twee vocal stylings. If anything, she has more of an edgy pop voice. It's really that mix of storytelling, theatrics, and piano accompaniment that begs the comparison. It wouldn't surprise me if Kates has a full length stage musical opus hiding somewhere in her portfolio.

For much of The Unexamined Life, she settles for songs that unfold like little vignettes, with stylistic shifts to indicate scene changes. Price of Company is a great example. It starts out as a moody, descending bass jazz-blues. The track establishes a standard song structure, but the feel and imagery suggest a video, perhaps with a rain splattered window and a glimpse of Kates pacing in her room. But the bridge shatters that mood with a manic energy. The frantic beat has an amphetamine soaked 1920s sound.

Those sonic shifts can be a touch unnerving, but plenty of the other tracks maintain more consistency. The opening track, Before You Lose It has a more conventional arrangement. The earnest piano beginning is one part John Lennon's Imagine and three parts Ben Folds. Kates voice has a feigned weariness. About the time the chorus should drop, the rest of the band kicks in. The relaxed beat supports the sparse lines of a singing slide guitar and a warm caress of string. The music conjures the feel of a stroll through the past, taking stock of chances lost and fine choices made. The lyrics don't fit the mood, though. This musical interlude mutes the impact of lines like "Wash that blood off your hands/Before you stain them". Turmoil coalesces in the tail end of the track, finally bringing the music in line with the lyrics. While it might have been better to hint at this earlier in the song, it a powerful finish.

Kates' piano work throughout The Unexamined Life is strong. Her playing hits its peak on кошмары, which lays down a nice retro Eastern European sound. She's accompanied by a small, rich orchestra that provides an ominous Tom Waits vibe. While the main piano line is fairly repetitive, Kates opens up during the chorus. Then, on the bridge, she improvises off the melody to slip a little outside.

Naama Kates has a unique aesthetic that stands out from the crowd. The Unexamined Life shows a fine musical range. Dropping by her site, I was surprised to see that she's done a set of Radiohead covers as well. Such an intriguing artist should do well if she can reach the right audience.