The back story goes something like this: Kath Bloom recorded a series of traditional and original folk and blues tunes back in the late ’70s and early ’80s with guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors. The two artists released the music in small batches ranging from 50 copies to 200; some were limited edition 45s, others tape cassettes and/or LPs with handmade sleeves. Bloom garnered a cult following and achieved a small dose of fame when film director Richard Linklater used her song “Come Here” in his successful movie Before Sunrise. Later, director Caveh Zahedi used Bloom’s “Come Here” and “It’s Fall Again” in his debut movie effort, A Little Stiff.
The recent success and resurgence of another obscure folk artist with limited record sales across the pond, Vashti Bunyan, has inspired renewed interest in Bloom’s work. Two of Bloom and Connors’s early CDs have been reissued, and Bloom has recorded a brand new album. The problem is, Bloom is no Bunyan. Bunyan has a much more interesting and expressive voice and writes more literate and creative lyrics.
That’s not too surprising. Part of Bunyan’s charm was her very eccentricity. Bloom’s music is more pedestrian. Some of that has to do with the differences between the British and American folk scenes. Brit musicians were supposed to stand out from the masses through their virtuosity, while US talents gained points for sounding like one of the lumpen proletariat.
But it’s more than that. Bloom doesn’t have a very dynamic persona. She comes off as impassive and secretive rather than animated and communicative. That lends her an air of mystery and sadness, as if she is hiding something significant and dramatic from her audiences.
Consider her composition “I’m as Good as I Want to Be” from Sand in My Shoe, which features Connors’s swirling guitar notes as a wall of tears in the background. The song’s lyrics concern being free: free to do with what she wants with her body, free to leave her lover in the morning unbound by any chains. While Bloom celebrates her independence, the melancholy in her voice suggests something different. She uses her words of liberty as a defense against feeling deep emotions. What comes across as simple defiance against conventions functions on a subtler level as well, refusing to give in to her true self as well as to others, a real act of will. The result suggests the multifaceted nature of autonomy. Being true to oneself on one level can mean being false to oneself on another, as we all have contradictory impulses and desires.
However, sometimes this same affectation works against her. When she and Connors revisit the traditional song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” from Sing the Children Over, the playfulness of the song is replaced by a forced earnestness. The lyrics just don’t convey the weight of the phrasing. No matter how one sings, “Dinah, won’t you blow your horn” or “Fee Fi fiddly-eye-o”, they just don’t seem to be serious lamentations. Connors tries to create a complexity by making the tune into a source of improvisatory exploration, but he would be better off “strumming on the old banjo” than he is hitting the high notes on the guitar’s fret board.
Bloom’s new album features her band Love at Work, which includes her longtime collaborator Tom Hanford and husband Stan Bronski. The recording quality is improved over the lo-fi DIY efforts of her previous years. This professionalism has both benefits and demerits, as it makes her voice clearer and brings out the tonal characteristics of the backup players, but it also makes the disc somewhat more generic. Her earlier recordings were somewhat distinctive because of they sounded as if they were made by talented amateurs using second-rate equipment.
The songs on Terror are also not as quirky as on the older records. While it might not seem fair to compare an artist’s material from 20+ years ago with today, when the person has been absent from the scene for so long, you have to do so. Terror is not a bad album, but Bloom seems to be playing it safe here. The lyrics can be imaginative, but she takes few risks at offending anyone here as she sings about “the midnight moon lighting up the room”, “the feeling of the open road and the wind blowing through my hair”, and other topics commonly used as metaphors and allegories by conventional songwriters. There is nothing unusual here.
Bloom’s early work was characterized by idiosyncrasies. One might wonder why a person would try to turn a safe song like “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” into a blues number, but at least it seemed risky. There a few gambles taken here. Even the title song “Terror” seems safe as Bloom sings of sadness more than madness. If it weren’t for Bloom’s past, this would seem like just another singer-songwriter effort by a somewhat talented folkie. This conventionality may be the reason some people like her. She could be your good friend who knows how to play guitar. But if she’s not already your pal, chances are you wouldn’t go out of your way to hear her.