First things first. She’s a female singer/songwriter from Alaska, so you can’t read a single Kate Earl review without suffering through at least one mention of that state’s most famous snaggletoothed musical export, but I’m not going to do it here. They don’t look or sound alike, for one thing — Earl is smokin’ hot and one of the most enjoyable debut artists I’ve heard in years — and for another, I prefer not to think of that other artist at all if I can help it. So there.
The press I’ve read on Earl contains a lot of comparisons — Joni Mitchell, Cat Power, blah blah blah — that miss the point without being entirely inaccurate. Her jazz-tinged brand of folksy pop will certainly go down smooth with the Lilith Fair crowd, but in most respects, she’s a pretty singular artist. She’ has an admirable set of pipes, but her voice has enough of a vulnerable edge to keep the songs grounded in honest emotion. A song like “Free” could be deadly in the wrong hands, but she nails it — as candlelit ballads go, it’s flawless.
It helps that Earl and producer Tony Berg never lost sight of her true strength, which is her songs. This is a deeply autobiographical set, and Berg brought in some big guns — Mitchell Froom, Michael Penn, Wendy Melvoin, Jon Brion, Pete Thomas — whose presence helps the material live up to its fullest potential. Even when the production gets semi-involved, like on “Officer,” everything still has room to breathe. Though Hunter does drag a bit in the middle, there isn’t a bum song in the bunch, and that’s something most artists can’t ever say, let alone about their debut.
Color me impressed. I want more.