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With Experience Comes Artistic Maturity: Kyle Craft Gets Darker with 'Showboat Honey'

Photo: Peter Karaviaw / Sub Pop

Portland-based rocker Kyle Craft adds more variety and edge to his music with his third full-length album, Showboat Honey.

Showboat Honey
Kyle Craft

Sub Pop

12 July 2019

In my review of Kyle Craft's 2018 album, Full-Circle Nightmare, I made a Rolling Stones analogy. If Craft's debut album, Dolls of Highland, was Aftermath, then Full-Circle Nightmare was Exile on Main Street. With that in mind, Craft's new album, Showboat Honey, is probably a combination of Goats Head Soup and Mick Jagger's work on the soundtrack to Performance. In other words, it's definitely the same artist, but with a welcome helping of variety and more than a little weirdness.

There are a number of factors at work here. Full-Circle Nightmare, produced by Decemberists bassist Chris Funk, was Craft's first album with a full band, and the result was a rousing, barroom stomp that took advantage of the band dynamic as well as a bona fide recording studio (Dolls of Highland was essentially a one-man band recorded primarily on a laptop). With that experience under his belt, there's an air of justifiable confidence going into Album Number Three. Funk is gone in favor of self-production (with assistance from keyboard player Kevin Clark and bassist Billy Slater), and the result is a more sonically experimental album.

Regardless of these occasional flights of fancy, Showboat Honey (which is also the name of Craft's stellar backing band) shows Craft's peerless songwriting shining through on every track. "2 Ugly 4 NY" is an obvious first single, sounding like T Rex stealing the riff from "Should I Stay Or Should I Go", and it's a simple, unvarnished pleasure, right down to the joyously self-deprecating lyrics ("I'm too honest to come clean / And you're too jaded to see me through"). But that burst of glam-rock ear candy is tempered nicely by opening track "Broken Mirror Pose", which rolls along on a slinky mid-tempo groove that recalls Gary Wright and Elton John battling for '70s AM radio supremacy. Craft could only be accused of shamelessly wearing his influences on his sleeve if he wasn't such a great songwriter to begin with.

Craft's music has often been compared to the early '70s glam heyday of David Bowie, and his love of Bob Dylan is obvious in the surreal imagery of the lyrics. But this is also a guy who recorded a series of singles dubbed Girl Crazy, all covers of songs by female artists ranging from Patsy Cline to TLC to St. Vincent. It's clear – his influences cover a lot of territories. With that in mind, it shouldn't come as a surprise to hear the garage psych-rock of "O! Lucky Hand" share album space with the anguished, falsetto theatrics of "Deathwish Blue". The brief, interlude-length "Blood in the Water" is a sparse tone poem that crashes into the twangy power-pop of "Buzzkill Caterwaul", a track that wouldn't sound out of place on Full-Circle Nightmare (right down to the bitter, kiss-off lyrics: "Once you were the talk of the town / Once you were the showboat honey, but your ship sailed out").

Other highlights include the dark, luxurious love ballad "Bed of Needles #2" ("If the comet comes, nuclear bath, fallout fire, and toxic ash / Bunker towns, death on wheels / Book of Revelation's okay too / Long as it's with you"), the back-to-basics funk boogie of "She's Lily Riptide", and the psychedelic buzz of "Sunday Driver". Craft is pulling out all the stops here, with few if any missteps, thanks to the strength of the songwriting and his sympathetic backing band, whose ease with the material is obvious and palpable.

Showboat Honey may come as a mild surprise to anyone looking for the more obvious hooks of Craft's earlier albums. This one is more nuanced and requires a bit more digging, but the good stuff is all in there, and like the best classic albums, its pleasures run deep.

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