A million years ago, a glacier carved Lake Superior into the frozen Michigan landscape. Million Year Old Sand, the third album by folk singer Audra Kubat, is as timeless and true as its title image. Somewhere between a female Nick Drake and a Joni Mitchell for the Starbucks generation, Kubat should be the toast of the music press. Instead, the defiantly stripped-down sound of Million Year Old Sand distances it from the current pop-music discourse -- and in turn renders it trend-proof. The result is a record that should have many critics wishing they could revise their 2003 year-end lists.
Most songwriters trade in clichés. "All I really want is you / You to stick around," sings adult-contemporary troglodyte Gavin DeGraw in his radio hit "Follow Through", only the first example to come to mind. (When he adds "Oh, look what I'm holding here in my fire / This is for you", he crosses the line from triteness to near-Jabberwockian nonsense.)
Most great songwriters thrive on idiosyncrasies. Who but Tom Waits would dryly inform us, "I don't have a drinking problem / Except when I can't get a drink"? Who but Morrissey would lament, "And now I know how Joan of Arc felt / When the flames rose to her Roman nose / And her Walkman started to melt"?
A very few great songwriters eschew such specificity and nevertheless transcend cliché. Audra Kubat is one of them. The sweet-voiced folk singer's sophomore album operates in the rarified realm of archetype alongside such luminaries as Nick Drake.
Nick Drake comparisons should not be made lightly. Contrary to the press-kit-quoting hype of recent years, neither Beck's steadfastly ordinary Sea Change nor Teitur's weepy crash-landing of an album, Poetry & Airplanes, can stand up to the light of Drake's epochal Pink Moon.
From the instrumental opening track, "Intro", it's clear that Kubat aspires to the magic captured by the English folkie, whose propensity for complex acoustic guitar lines and gentle, ethereal melodies she shares. Song for song, Kubat lacks the consistently high quality that made Drake great. The album's gems -- and there are a lot of them -- stand up with the best songwriting of 2003.
As on Drake's three albums, the songs here blend together at first, each sharing the same basic feel and instrumentation. But after the compositions reveal themselves, the optimistic "Light of Hope", "Life Has Just Begun", and "My Love" leap out as highlights, along with the more melancholy "She Falls" and "Someone Like You". Were those too many songs to call "highlights"? Not if you've heard them.
Kubat's voice, always Joni Mitchell-like, draws the most parallels to the older folk legend on the most memorable song of them all, "Tomorrow Never Comes". With a wistful resignation and gentle strings, Kubat gives new life to another old archetype. The lyrics aren't particularly groundbreaking, but set to a gorgeous melody and accompanied by acoustic guitar, strings, and soft drums, they work: "Yesterday / You called to say you can't believe / The state of things / And how you can't go on, not another day."
Of course, there are weak spots; Kubat may sound like Drake, but she's not him. Track two, "Golden Sea", is a lovely folk song, but its riff at first makes it sound like a cover of "Polly" from Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance. Now, I'm a Nirvana skeptic, but Kubat's song is nowhere near as good as its simulacrum, and it's one of the album's worst moments despite its elegance. The laughable album-closer, "Outro", essentially a six-minute exercise in New Age diarrhea of drone, may have seemed like a good idea on paper -- what better way to conclude a meditative album than music one might use while meditating? -- but to people who prefer (ahem) song-based music, it's patently unlistenable. (Volunteers to see if it's any better while blitzed out on peyote, or perhaps mescaline, please e-mail me.)
Although every song on the disc possesses a specific emotional setting, there's rarely a geographic sense of place -- probably a good thing, considering Kubat hails from Detroit. If you want to feel like you're in a post-industrial city of urban sprawl and racial tension, you can always get beaten up by Jack White or cussed at by Eminem.
One song does bring the listener to Kubat's home state, though. Apologies to Sufjan Stevens: Despite your Pitchfork-approved status (tantamount, as indie site Oebase.com has observed, to being picked for Oprah's Book Club) Kubat has written the year's best song about Michigan: the penultimate track, "Superior Sunsets". Kubat draws the album's title from this slow-building number: "I went to the lake / Where I'd gone as a child / Where I followed my first butterfly / And felt million-year-old sand." Kubat makes a state I've never had any desire to visit (despite the fact that my day job involves editing a Detroit online city guide) sound positively glorious. "I looked up at the fiery sky / And I knew that I had lived," she exults. "Superior sunsets still give me the chills."
Million Year Old Sand is unquestionably a fall and winter album, not a spring or summer album. But there are two kinds of cold-weather music, that which reflects and amplifies the bitter inhumanity outside (Radiohead) and that which crackles and glows in its humanity like a fire. Guess which one Kubat's album is -- and then warm your home with it.