Singer-songwriter Kim Richey has had her greatest financial successes as the writer or co-writer of songs performed by country artists such as Patty Loveless and Trisha Yearwood. However, Richey is a first rate recording artist and performer in her own right. Her previous six albums of mostly original material revealed her talents at intimately expressing our shared personal thoughts of who we are, how we got here, and what’s next. Her new album, Thorn in My Heart , shares the same personal concerns and high quality with her past ones. The 12 new songs do not sound significantly different than her old hits that were covered by country stars – Trisha Yearwood even sings here – and that’s a good thing because she has always been a skillful songwriter.
Richey is a keen observer of modern life who possesses a clever wit and a melodic touch. It’s hard to be an optimist these days without sounding like a Pollyanna or a fool whistling in the dark. Richey has a credible positive view. “I got a feeling everything’s gonna be good,” she sings in an appropriately subdued voice. The present is not so bad. The future may work out somehow. “I’m still hoping that there’s something more,” she sings on another tune with an ache in her voice. Richey knows there are always hardships and pain that accompany the good times, but that doesn’t mean one should not take chances in life and love.
Neilson Hubbard’s production relies on the big full sound of individual instruments to provide tonal effects. The muted horn that begins “London Town” and the banjo lead that starts “Something More” beautifully set the tunes in a richly evocative and emotional place. They pull at the heartstrings before Richey sings a word, and when she blends in it is as if another natural sound has been added to the mix. Her voice never grates; no matter what the topic or her persona’s state of mind, Richey stays musical. Part of this is because she never really rages. For example, if other people disappoint and dishearten her, she gets down without getting depressed. She’s headed to the woods and the water where she can restore her soul. Sure, it’s corny and clichéd, but it is also true this therapy works for many people (myself included).
But Richey understands human beings are social creatures. The best tracks on the record reveal both the negative and positive sides of making connections with others. On the sinfully wicked “No Means Yes”, the allure of low rent hotel rooms and illicit affairs can be found in their very depravity (“It feels so good to be so wrong”). Richey turns to drinking as the answer on “Angels’ Share” and learns the importance of draining the bottle until there is nothing left to deal with in difficult times. Lou Reed used to call this “the power of positive drinking”, but Richey’s not so sure.
Thorn in My Heart defies easy categorization and may be overlooked by country radio for being too rootsy, Americana fans for being too sophisticated, folk fans for being too literary, etc. However, this very lack of boundaries is the record’s greatest strength. Richey doesn’t try to fit in. In other words, she knows that money, love, and hurt comes and goes, but the heart remains. Sometimes it’s best not to try and pull out the barb. “La la la,” Richey sings, “la la la.” She’s not done with living. A heartache still beats without having a heart.