[10 July 2014]
American folk music veteran Kris Delmhorst is no stranger to the music business. She has, in fact, been around for almost 20 years, having released her debut album, Appetite, as far back as 1998. After spending that long in the game you’re bound to want to mix it up a little and, seeing as Blood Test would be her first album of original material since 2008, Delmhorst clearly felt that a change of tact was necessary. Therefore, when deciding on the direction for this album, Delmhorst opted to go back to basics, stripping her sound down to the bare bones. In her own words, with Blood Test she was “focused on paring things down to their elements—less flesh, more bone”.
However, just because you take your music seriously doesn’t mean you have to forsake hooks, and just because you’re mature doesn’t mean you can’t still have fun. Despite Delmhorst’s obvious music sensibility, every song on Blood Test has the same basic melody and structure, never daring to stray from the formula which Delmhorst has saddled herself with. As a result, all the tracks end up blending into one due to their similarity and, for all her conviction, Delmhorst ends up sounding like any other acoustic singer songwriter. That’s not to say Blood Test is not a pleasant listen; it’s just not a very interesting one. Delmhorst never shocks or surprises and certainly doesn’t dare to challenge the listener’s perceptions of typical folk music.
Perhaps the main problem, however, is the lack of originality. Blood Test contains nothing you haven’t heard a thousand times before and the majority of the songs are depressingly downbeat, with only several more animated tunes providing light relief later in the album. The especially ballad-heavy first half drags it down from the very start. After the first three tracks you find yourself begging her to sing an uptempo number and, for this reason, when “Temporary Sun” comes around you find your hopes rising at the welcome change in pace. But then you realize it’s the shortest track on the album—lasting less than 90 seconds—and then Delmhorst begins slowly strumming her guitar, marking the beginning of ballad “Hushabye”. The fun is over.
Delmhorst’s gift and curse is her voice. She has a scratchy, earthy tone which lends itself well to certain styles of music. Such a distinctive voice can be a blessing insofar as it can help knit together a whole album and create a cohesion that singers with more run of the mill voices can only dream of. Unfortunately, her vocal talent is squandered on Blood Test, as the songs aren’t creative or interesting enough for her to show it off. Delmhorst could have done with experimenting with some different instrumentation throughout the album, as the acoustic guitar / drum combination can’t help but feel derivative due to the glut of similar artists doing exactly the same thing with more success. One of the only times we get to experience Delmhorst’s voice at full effect is on the raw, emotive standout “Saw it All”, which shows another side to the singer, one which could have done with a bit more airtime. The listener ends up craving a bit more of her soft purring combined with the rough guitar riff which makes “Saw it All” more compelling than most of the rest of the album put together.
Despite its flaws however, Blood Test does provide the dedicated listener something worth keeping. Some of the finer songs are tucked away in the latter half of the album, such as the light as a feather ballad “Little Frame” and “We Deliver”, which sees Delmhorst channeling KT Tunstall circa Eye to the Telescope. The problem is that the album is such a slow burner that you really need to listen to it at least ten times before its full effect is revealed. The texture and color provided by the personal touches on the album become more evident and the music can be appreciated for its sincerity and authenticity. But for the majority of listeners, it will be too little too late.