Biography is often a critical component of how people decode music. This extra-textual information, often readily available at the nearest computer, bleeds into the sounds we hear. Voices and instrumental textures take on specific qualities in light of the personal narratives attached to them. Perhaps listening to music without knowing anything about the people who create it is somehow a more pure experience, an experience unencumbered by the expectations of biography. Nevertheless, the folk genre represents one of the strongest connections between biography and music. The railroad travels and Dust Bowl struggles of Woody Guthrie, the small-town Minnesota boy re-cast as a bohemian prophet named Dylan– these are the kinds of Americana-drenched narratives that often shape perceptions of contemporary folk music. However, a compelling personal story is nothing without compelling music to back it up. Brian Kremer’s debut Climbing the Vine thankfully presents both.
Brian Kremer, born in Colorado and raised in rural Vermont, studied voice and music theory at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Afterwards, he joined a classical singing group in St. Paul, Minnesota before eventually arriving in Austin, Texas. Austin has a long history of folk music and Kremer began honing his craft and meeting collaborators at various venues around town. Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, Lucinda Williams, and Richard Thompson were his touchstones as he developed a style of music very different from the type he was performing back in Minnesota. The songs on Climbing the Vine reveal a musician deftly combining his experiences and skills with some the best collaborators available.
Steel guitar/Dobro player Cindy Cashdollar and the Tosca String Quartet bring nuanced, professional playing to Kremer’s songs throughout the album. Cashdollar has worked with Van Morrison, Ryan Adams, and the aforementioned small-town Minnesota boy while the Tosca String Quartet has contributed to music by David Byrne, Spoon, and Kip Winger (!). There’s nothing like surrounding yourself with the best. On tracks like “Sparrow Boxing” and “Just the Same”, Kremer creates space in his arrangements to showcase the talents of his backing band. Piano, organ, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and rich backing vocals drift in and out with a studied, but not lifeless, precision. These are thoughtful, considered songs and Kremer’s ability to play to the strengths of his collaborators shows his maturity and restraint.
Kremer’s influences and collaborators shine in his music, but his vocal abilities ensure his songs sound like his alone. Sometimes optimistic and soaring, sometimes pleading and understated, his voice is as an evocative instrument in itself. His vocals bounce along on the jaunty “Trouble Deep” and stretch out wistfully on “Tuesday Morning Birthday”. Ultimately, his voice is Kremer’s trump card and the centerpiece of each track on this album.
Climbing the Vine is a polished, assured debut from a musician who brings a well-traveled history, top-notch training, and a strong supporting cast to his creations. It’s hard not to hear the history behind the tracks on this album – the sound of the past and the present coming together through music. Although his past and present come through in fine style on his current album, it’s the future where Kremer’s most promise lies.