Thin Thin Line •••½
With a recording career that began over thirty years ago, Kath Bloom has been enjoying something of a second renaissance of late. During the late ’70s and ’80s she worked with Loren Mazzacane Connors, releasing a stash of avant-garde folk recordings that won them a small but impassioned following who loved the oddness of Bloom’s traditional voice with Connors’ curious guitar style. Rediscovered in the mid-’90s by virtue of Richard Linklater’s inclusion of one of her songs in ‘Before Sunrise’, Thin Thin Line is her third solo full-length. Though her voice at times sounds too fragile to bear the emotional load of her songs, she is capable of suddenly hitting the listener with an unexpected bluesy power. With intimate production values and the dial set to simplicity, Thin Thin Line is straight-up singer-songwriter fare in an American tradition that owes more to Woody Guthrie than it does the experimental.
The title track begins with an invitation to see the “opening of the sky” and has the patchouli waft of an acoustic hippie summer some four decades earlier, its refrain of “Free, yeah” reinforcing the idea you might just have stumbled through a time slip to an impromptu Haight-Ashbury happening. Rescued by a meaty piece of cello and a sophisticated guitar pluck, what could have been a mawkish historical detour rejoins the 21st century by the time its five and a half minutes are up. ‘Like This’ is a heartbreaking plea to a partner on the verge, shocking in its honesty, Bloom appealing to her lyrical subject to wait another day before deciding to give up the fight. The chorus plea of “I don’t want to see you like this” is sure to strike a chord with anyone who has seen a loved one in a state of abject despair.
It’s at moments like this that Thin Thin Line finds its meaning. Bloom has a maturity of experience that suffuses her songwriting with a sense of deep personal authenticity and relevance; this is no once-loved historical curio carrying on way past her sell-by date. If at times there are elements of period pastiche, they are outweighed by others of timeless immediacy. ‘Back There’ is a folk club singalong with a wistful piece of atmospheric harmonica and a hopeful lyrical turn, a song of purring engines, open highways in a big country, and heavy loads being left behind as you cruise off into better times. Here, Bloom expresses an uncomplicated, down-home worldview that, depending on the listener’s disposition, will either charm or repel.
By way of contrast, ‘Another Point Of View’ is emotionally complex and utterly heartbreaking in its all too sincere declaration of emotional death. Full of dusty old houses, candles, old books and mats laid out for prayers beneath the stars, personal loneliness raises existential questions about our place in the universe, forever trapped in the limited narrative of our individual existence. She doesn’t stop to muse too long though. Shining glory gets a heads-up in ‘Let’s Get Living’; here, there’s grace enough to get you through the darkest moments and a god that helps you to your feet. Another singalong number, it seems that optimism calls for more voices than her own. Contrasted with the lonely solitude of the previous track it would seem that Kath Bloom finds her redemption in human faces. Happiness is a communal phenomena.
Elsewhere, ‘Freddie’ is a bouncy piece of innocent, 1950s pop, all bobby socks and moonlit coyness. Charming rhymes, sweet harmonies, a wedge of hoedown fiddle and the occasional screamed ‘yowl’ making sure her roots are still showing. Bloom is alone again on album standout, ‘Heart So Sadly’, hiding from a visiting lover, her heart afraid to live. She trusts in the ability of self-deceit to help her through until she’s able to accept someone into her life. A square of light falls on her bookcase before love sure enough returns. It’s a lovely encapsulation of the album as whole, where harrowing, complex emotions give way to the optimistic simplicities of joy.
Some critics have argued that Kath Bloom’s later solo work is mundane compared with her earlier experimental collaborations with Connors, but that is perhaps to miss the point. Yes, there is a mundanity about Thin Thin Line in that it makes no claims to be anything other than what it is, but the strength of the album is Bloom’s emotive voice and surprising lyrical turns. Honesty is here in spades and that in itself can be as radical as any avant-garde bravado.
UK release date: 22/02/10; www.myspace.com/kathbloom
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