Every once in while, we see a live show that's so transcendental in it's scope, that takes the live venue and transforms it into a singular experience, where the voices of the crowd drops away, and the artist becomes a singular focus.
That happened a couple of Saturday nights ago at Schuba's, with Julia Klee. With backing by anywhere from 7-9 players (on horns, backing vocals, mandolin, etc.) it was Klee's voice and her lyricism that took center stage.
A booming and deep well vocalist, Klee has drawn comparisons to Neko Case, Jolie Holland (whom she covered brilliantly at her live show) and Kelly Hogan. Which is all well and good, and apt, but Julia Klee seems to be drawing from an older tradition, one that includes Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and most especially, Emmylou Harris. Some of those comparisons come from a lyrical intent. Klee is songwriter of incredible situationist gift, warping her voice into the subject, manipulating her vocals into the sad and the beautiful. Some of those comparisons are in the power of her voice. It's an astonishing instrument in it's own right.
The show we saw last Saturday was the record release party for her new record, The Big Charade. One of the most astonishing debuts we've heard in years.
While Klee's show is a collaborative effort (she hands over the stage to friends and fellow musicians alike), the record is a star turn, a heartbreaking and humorous take on Country tropes, but staking out a new territory all her own. We've never heard it's like before.
So, to the record. The Big Charade.
From the opening track, "Rabbit Hole" to the final song, "A Song About Being Rich" (which is our entry into best song title of the year), Julia Klee crafts a record of depth and spirit, a hoedown of longing and beauty. According to Klee, she recorded this record using "...her mother's classical guitar and a hand-me-down piano". Appropriate enough, considering the sepia-toned nature of the record.
"Rabbit Hole" starts off with delicate piano instro, before busting out into a fiddle-tinged raver, and sets the stage. "Hook Sung By Strangers", our favorite of the big-sound songs, follows, a horn-swirled hootenanny, Klee's voice sultry and strong. A love song, strung with a gorgeous, surging, melody, and lyrical joy ("Our love is hook sung by strangers/Driving their cars/It goes with mornings and coffee"). Further rompers follow: "Big Charade", a twisting desert road chugger ("there's a con man and philosopher/and they're fighting for my bed"). "Macgillard" is all western-noir dread, Klee's voice set loose, and something bad's gonna happen.
As much as we love the "rockers", Klee truly shines on the slower tunes on Big Charade. A rarity for us to love the slow songs, it's true, but that's the power of this record. "A Song About Being Rich", "Overpass", and "Elephants" are all pieces of late night whiskey lament and dream, accentuated by Klee's piano and voice, delicately rendered and heart broken and rending. Songs to make this old boy raise his glass and while away the wee hours. Beauty in the heart of sadness and quiet joy.
Which brings us to the two centerpiece songs, "Wedding" and "Drunken Chess". "Wedding" begins as a slow burning tale ("What starts at the altar/Begins at the grave/For the lovers and the knowers of God"), a song of rebellion and love, the old and the new, the traditional and the youth, full of stars and moons ("heaven in my hands/and fire upon my chest"). Burning that fire, the song smolders and crackles, under finally, release...the song cracks wide open into a crackerjack wedding reel, driving and joyous.
And "Drunken Chess"...we compared Klee to Parton, Wells, Lynn, and Harris, earlier. This is where she becomes their equal. A ballad any one of 'em would be proud to call their own, but they can't, because Klee owns this song. Klee's voice wavers, sinks, slow and languid, becoming stronger, taking command of the line, allowing space, pleading the light and crawling the dark. A delicately plucked banjo here, a lap steel whisper there. Delicate and strong, without cliche, it's a classic. Every line a perfect moment we've all been in, but never found the right words to express it. Julia Klee does it for us. We'll drink to this song any night of the week. Best song we've heard all year.
"Cuz tonight I will kiss youJulia Klee's new record, The Big Charade is available here.
In the morning you'll be whiskey on my breath"
Ms. Klee is an independent musician. So please support her how you can!
Julie Klee: Hook Song Sung By Strangers (mp3)
Julia Klee: Drunken Chess (mp3)