Yes, Amy Speace is another girl with a guitar. But on The Killer in Me, she proves that she’s more than fierce enough to rock the scowl that she bares on the album’s front cover. While there aren’t any surprises when it comes to the instrumentation or song structure, Speace maximizes traditional elements to blend her songs into a good variety, all of which are carried by her strong voice. Further, she manages to concoct a persona equal parts innocence and experience through the varied subject matter and her delivery of it. She doesn’t entirely transcend all the pitfalls that come with the folk-pop genre territory, but she does a good job keeping your ears distracted from them.
Speace’s voice is a definite highlight of the album. Her natural voice has a folk-pop duskiness to it like Brandi Carlisle’s, but Speace wields her voice like an instrument, letting it take on a variety of sounds throughout the album. It never sounds weak or thin, but she has some lovely moments of vulnerability, such as in “Haven’t Learned a Thing”. “Better” displays more of a contemporary country sound, and “Blue Horizon” evokes more classic folksingers like Nanci Griffith. She uses her voice with equal strength and flexibility no matter what the nature of the music—both the blues-inflected “Would I Lie” and the old-timey “I Met My Love” are delivered with panache and elegance.
For a strong songwriter like Speace, it’s disappointing that her lyrical themes are so familiar. Within contemporary folk, there are certain staples that most mid-grade artists deliver: there’s the “what have I learned” song, the “sometimes it’s this and sometimes it’s that” song, to name two. Speace does a winning job of the “what have I learned” song with “Haven’t Learned a Thing”, but the idea of a long exploration only to end up nowhere has worn thin in folk music. Similarly, “This Love” is sometimes trite and sometimes hackneyed but never the best that a songwriter like Speace can do.
Don’t be fooled by these flaws, though. Speace’s songwriting is generally high above par, both lyrically and musically. The first track, “Dog Days”, is a song of innocence with an impossibly catchy chorus. The other songs move through various musical terrains—blues, country, and folk-pop are all here—and myriad subject themes, all of which touch on existential themes such as loss, death, and love. She deals with all of them deftly: “if I die before my mother / let me fly beyond the blue / and paint the moon the color of her eyes”, she sings on “Blue Horizon”. “You stood there like a stoic / you made me feel so claustrophic” goes one incisive couplet from “Haven’t Learned a Thing”. One of the most beautiful of her songwriting choices is instrumental; “Storm Warning” ends with a minute and a half of fingerpicked guitar and minimal percussion, as Speace adds ambient backing vocals that gently build to the song’s ecstatic finish.