There’s a pernicious stereotype held by some music fans: the earnest singer/songwriter, alone with a guitar in her apartment, or a remote cabin perhaps, recording slow to mid-tempo folk-pop ballads meant to soundtrack listeners’ romantic evenings or to soothe their heartbreak. It’s easy to write off this type of singer as sleepy and generic, or at least to pigeonhole many of these mild-mannered performers into a barely distinguishable group. But this cliché belies how often such singers’ albums actually feature inventive and energetic writing, genre-skipping tunefulness, and production values that reward the careful listener with deep pools of sound in which they can immerse themselves.
Kris Delmhorst is such a singer. Her fifth studio album was, in fact, recorded mostly alone in a remote cabin (loaned to her by fellow expectation defy-ing songwriter Erin McKeown). Delmhorst’s performance alternates between bell-like vocals recalling other clear-voiced singers as McKeown, Sarah Harmer, and Laura Viers, and a whispered delivery modeled after Sam Beam. But while these comparisons and classifications and groupings are the first things that come to mind on listening to Shotgun Singer, the album’s bells and whistles — or to be precise, its Rhodes pianos, organs, cellos, vibraphones, and vinyl samples — distract the listener from any pigeonholing they might be tempted to do. The album’s most upbeat (and strongest) track, “1000 Reasons”, best shows off Delmhorst’s complex musical weaving: drum machine beats layer over live drums, energetic dance-hall piano plays around underlying Rhodes lines, electric guitars give shape to the song’s fuzzy synthesizer core.
The album’s strongly layered sound is a direct result of its creative development. In McKeown’s cabin, Delmhorst recorded the bones of the songs slowly, adding over time layers of guitar, strings, and percussive textures. She then brought the tracks to co-producer Sam Kassirer, who also produced last year’s stellar Josh Ritter album The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, another album that plays with notions of what the work of a singer-songwriter sounds like. Kassirer and Delmhorst then brought another group of musicians to the songs, adding further drums, organs, vibraphone, slide guitar, and bass.
The result of this process is a recording of unusual depth. The interplay of multiple percussive elements on songs pulsate the slinky “Heavens Hold the Sun” and shade the lounge noir “If Not for Love”. Almost half of the songs feature vibraphone in key supporting roles, and its pairing with nylon-stringed guitars gives songs such as “Birds of Belfast” the quietly melancholic sense that these are tunes that could be heard coming from a child’s music box, with silvery syncopated tones accompanying a lone ballerina spinning slowly on a spring. But in spite of the layers of production, the album maintains the intimate strengths that home recording can lend a song. The warmth of the room tone underlying the whispered “Oleander” and the lyrical “Freediver” acts almost as another instrument in the arrangement.
The layers and layers of quiet sound create an atmosphere evoking a calm gulf of water, a sense that Delmhorst’s lyrics further. “Louie, all of the oceans are here inside me”, she sings on “Freediver”. “Search me, I don’t know if I am air or water / Truly I think they’re one and the same / To a freediver”. This isn’t always a strength — some of the tunes, including album-opener “Blue Adeline” — are pretty but meandering, failing to find a focus and washing over the listener without a current to pull them in. But most of the songs work, as Delmhorst takes songs with smooth singer-songwriter gloss and reveals their unexpected depth.
Delmhorst has already demonstrated her skill at teasing the familiar but sidestepping past it. Her last album, 2006’s Strange Conversation, was a collection of rootsy songs each inspired by poems by Robert Browning, e.e. cummings, Lord George Gordon Byron, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Hermann Broch. The pairing of Americana tunes with Romantic, Modernist, and Victorian poetry sounds like a contradiction, but it wasn’t. Shotgun Singer is less immediately anachronistic than that album, but it shows Delmhort’s continued progression as a songwriter of surprising musical ideas and a palate both broad and deep.