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Kim Richey

Chinese Boxes

(Vanguard; US: 10 Jul 2007; UK: Available as import)

Time changes everything

Kim Richey comes from a Nashville country background and earned her alt-country stripes back in the day, but she’s clearly been a sophisticated pop ingénue on her last few records. The transformation is complete. There’s not a trace of twang on Chinese Boxes, even when she’s singing lines about a train in the distance. Americana’s loss is the listener’s gain. Richey’s gone from being home on the range to offering a range of songs that belong in every family’s home. Her new album contains 10 songs that would rule the charts in a land where Marshall Crenshaw was king, Aimee Mann queen, and The Beatles never put out another record after Revolver.


Speaking of the fab four, Richey’s latest opus was exquisitely produced by Giles Martin, whose most recent project was The Beatles’ Love album. Martin likes to have every instrument, including Richey’s voice, sound distinct from each other. One hears the drums, the guitar, the bass, etc., separately rather than blended together. This creates a pleasant spatial tension, as if the instruments were in conversation with each other even when they are being played at the same time. This also allows the listener to understand every word Richey sings, even when the volume is loud and the tempo is fast. The lyrics are worth it, as is Richey’s sweet and expressive voice.


After 20 years of making music and ten years of recording albums, Richey knows better than to make grand facile pronouncements. She pens smart and catchy tunes that reveal a wry sensibility born out of a deep heart and a keen mind. She can be alternatively zany and smart. She sings about oranges being eaten in apple trees and doing dishes in a Laundromat one minute, and the fact the love that makes her feel so giddy is doomed to fail the next.  Richey knows that love and pain go together, but whether she’s singing about “Jack and Jill” as a metaphor for a couple happily doomed to climb that hill of good feelings and fall down afterwards or pleasant dreams that really shouldn’t feel that way considering what’s happening in them, Richey knows we can’t resist the promise of love. We go willingly to the slaughter of another’s arms and lips.


It’s not that we’re stupid or cruel. It’s just that people never stay the same. As she pithily puts it in the beginning of “Not a Love Like This”, “You said you loved me/I think you meant it at the time/Time has a way of changing….” That’s the secret of life. It’s not a heavy concept—the fact that everything changes except for the fact that everything changes—like the Chinese boxes puzzle from which the album gets its title. This simple but tricky idea allows Richey to play with her melodies and Martin to employ a host of instrumental accompaniments: a bass line plunked to show time moving slowly but steadily, a horn fanfare to announce the wonderment of the sun rising, a tinkling piano to suggest a pretty landscape, etc. The music constantly shifts to reveal the narrator’s ever-growing and developing point of view. Richey always ends her songs smarter than when she began, even if she still feels confused about what happened.


For an album whose material seems linked by a common theme of time passing, there is not one specific reference to a place or event that would signify this as a record made today. There are no allusions to anything outside of the individual concerns of each song or its narrator. You would not learn one thing about the world in which the record emerged from this disc. War. Politics. Movies. Music. Sports. Gossip. No mentions of anything like those topics here. What’s that David Bowie used to sing, “Time may change me/but I can’t trace time.” Richey would certainly agree—even as she sings, “Don’t let another day go by.” Changes, indeed!

Rating:

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


Tagged as: kim richey
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The 12 new songs do not sound significantly different than her old hits that were covered by country stars, and that’s a good thing because she has always been a skillful songwriter.
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