[18 August 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Love Has Made Me Stronger is the latest in a growing series of reissues over at Drag City, where the label has now made a habit of unearthing outlying musical gems, often documents of a particular time and place, though their sound—particularly in outstanding works like Gary Higgins’ Red Hash from 1973—often still resonates in meaningful ways. The growing list of artists Drag City has resurrected is compelling and varied, though few are as striking as Carol Kleyn upon first listen.
Kleyn’s story feels, at first, like a familiar one. Having gone to the University of California Santa Barbara in 1969 to find the beaches and clear skies of most California dreams, what she found instead was a campus galvanized against Vietnam and ready to protest. By 1970, she dropped out of school and began a journey to find a different kind of resistance in a life lived in opposition to strife, one built on unadulterated joy, connection with nature, and a deep appreciation for beauty and love.
That journey brought her to a young musician, Bobby Brown, who gave her the harp that changed her life at age 21. Though she worked as part of Brown’s “Universal One Man Band”, she began to write her own songs and performed at swap meets, street corners, and anywhere else she could. All this led, improbably, to playing for crowds including the likes of Graham Nash, Phil Spector, Robert Plant, and John Lennon in their numbers. Without so much as a song recorded, she would open for Gregg Allman on tour.
It wasn’t until 1976 that she finally recorded her album by herself—you can see her busking for recording dough on the album’s cover. Hearing the record now, it feels like an antidote to the then-exhausted tension that had ran through the post-Altamont ‘70s. This isn’t a record about standing up to what’s wrong; it’s about creating your own thing that is absolutely right. Kleyn herself seems the perfect conduit for this wholly positive message. Her voice is a childlike take on the range of Joni Mitchell, something unpredictable but always sweet, while her harp (and, in the second half, piano and organ) glide under voice, highlighting it with sharp points of light.
The joy on Love Has Made Me Stronger is unabashed and upfront. On opener “Love’s Goin’ Round”, her first few notes may sound dark, even haunting, but they bloom slowly into the “ooh la las” of the chorus before she insists, without a blink, the title’s claim. The harp is there, but it lays in wait until the end of song, concluding it with a shimmering cascade of notes that shows, in some way, Kleyn’s version of love as it makes its arrival.
As it turns out, this first claim is one of her softer claims of love. Of all the tracks, only one doesn’t use the word “love”—and that’s because it’s created an extended metaphor about the subject—and Kleyn brings forth her feelings with an unflappable openness. On the chorus of “Blackbird”, she takes on the part of the bird, claiming, “I want to sing you a love song” before mimicking a bird’s singing without even the slightest hint of irony. “Ode to a Monarch” is exactly what it sounds like (a heartfelt tribute to a butterfly), and her harp playing achieves a fragile sway to represent the creature well. As she shifts to using keys on the second half of the record, connections between nature and love get no less sweet. “I am a mountain child,” she exclaims on “Mountain Child” as the keys glide along. Even the title track, about the lost romantic tie between her and Brown, ends in joy, not sadness. As hushed as it is, her playing becomes upbeat and percussive in the end. “Tell him love has made me stronger”, she sings. You can almost hear her smiling.
The record is an unending dose of intense, almost insular, joy—and if it’s representative of its time, it shows a particular sect of the counterculture that truly did live as an opposite, preferring to shut themselves off from trouble rather than push against it. The results make for a record that would sound naïve if Kleyn wasn’t so convincing in her optimism. She seems to be singing to herself, and the space around her, as much as to us. So while all this joy may feel over the top at times—and it is; the album wouldn’t suffer if a moment of doubt was woven in—it never feels forced.
It’s hard, now, not to think of Joanna Newsom when you hear a harp player. Hell, Newsom is also on Drag City, and there are some structural connections that are hard to ignore—Newsom’s first record also split time between harp and keys. In the end, though, Kleyn and Newsom sound very little alike. Both make sounds unaware of time and place around them, out of step with trends and very much in step with old traditions, but Kleyn’s version seems so much less self-aware. You get the impression she’d sing—or has sung—these songs over and over when no one was listening. Though the record may sound eccentric, Kleyn never insists upon some carefully crafted weirdness. If she is an outlier, it’s because her sound was inherently singular, not crafted to be that way. Reading her liner notes to the reissue only reinforces this idea, since her tone as she talks of meeting all those famous musicians is still one of wide-eyed wonderment.
In the end, Kleyn’s story is one that contrasts in fascinating ways with the musical world today. Where today it is relatively easy to make a record, to get it up on the web and have someone, anyone, hear it, Kleyn kicked around for years before she made her record. She did things her way, and it worked, but nothing came easy. In the end, she made the record for herself. If Drag City has, once again, done a service with this reissue, it has shown us a voice of conviction in Kleyn, and that power riding under these songs is what makes them interesting, even if all that joy might be tough for us to swallow in such tough times.