We’ve all heard the story before: 1) Young woman grows up in the frigid sub-arctic climate of rural Alaska; 2) She works a menial job at the behest of her parents; 3) The locale presents infinite opportunities for said young woman to dream about other things; 4) Aforementioned dreams are translated into not-as-yet-aforementioned songs; 5) Songs receive impressive production values; 6) The songs, somewhat jazzy/somewhat poppy, find an immense audience, thanks in part to the young woman’s good looks; 7) Young woman uses superstar status to publish book of immensely crappy poetry.
Maybe it’s not a traditionally familiar story. Okay, so Jewel is the only person to whom this entire list applies. But 22-year-old Kate Earl could be the second. Though hopefully the backlash would be twice as bad if she writes poetry and recasts herself as a pop starlet. Let’s review the evidence Earl grew up in Chugiak, Alaska, and worked at a gas station, which was boring to say the least. Her lyrics reflect her dreaming and background: “Forty below, driving on deathly icy roads / Backseat is full of clothes”. Her songs are consistently pitch-perfect in regards to instrumentation, string arrangements, and vocals. She also ain’t that bad to look at.
First impressions are deceiving with this record. “Someone to Love” sounds like a pale imitation of Fiona Apple at her best. The mix of blues, R&B, and blue-eyed soul combines with a female voice. Even Apple’s longtime producer Jon Brion adds a little organ to the song. But Earl’s voice doesn’t sound very powerful in comparison to the music. The bridge, however, provides the first indication that Earl could be something special. Her voice soars over the classy strings before breaking into the typical chorus once more. The key word here is classy. The musicianship and arrangements are classy throughout. Credit producer Tony Berg for creating a fabulous platform over which Earl can sing.
The catalog of influences grows with each track. “When You’re Older” harkens back to female singer/songwriters of the ‘70s. Earl phrases her words like Joni Mitchell and croons like Carole King. “Officer” is a rocking roots number with Beck style distorted guitar splashes and the vocal delivery of Sheryl Crow. Earl’s wit punctuates the chorus: “I’m not drunk, I wanna go home officer / And that’s all”. “Sweet Sixteen” belongs alongside popular tunes from the ‘20s or ‘30s. I could picture Jay Gatsby pining for the chanteuse in a corner with Django Reinhardt playing the accompaniment. “Free” could have been one of Neil Young’s contributions to CSNY’s Déjà vu, right down to the otherworldly lap steel guitar.
Some of the lyrics seem clichéd when read out of context, but none sounds bad coming out of Kate Earl’s mouth. Quite often though, her lyrics are excellent. She sings, “So I’ll be here till you’re brave”, all the while waiting for her man to say he loves her. She concedes, by the end of the song, that the words may never come: “If I could just convince myself I’m better off / Much better / With silence”. Earl has been lauded for possessing a voice that is both confident and vulnerable at the same time. She’ll sing in a strong vibrato just as easily as she’ll lift into a tender falsetto. This juxtaposition is furthered by the pictures included in the packaging. She’s a shy waif in a frilly dress hiding partially behind trees. Then in the liner notes, Earl confidently writes, “Chris, I shall bear you sons and daughters” (God, I hope he’s her husband or boyfriend or something).
The album ends as it begins, with an astounding bridge. “Hero”, already a fine song, catapults into the stratosphere with the sublime strings and Earl’s confession: “And I’m tired of being held back at arm’s length / Tired, tired and something’s gotta change”.
I hear you, Kate. I just hope other people decide to listen as well.