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CD Review: Katharine Whalen – Dirty Little Secret

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If you remember the 1920s jazzy barroom music of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, you’ll dig on the new sounds of Katharine Whalen. Here on Dirty Little Secret, her smoky, sexy voice is melded with the modern sounds created by David Sale, who is more instrumental in the creation of this album, so it’s surprising that it’s billed as her album. Not to take anything away from Whalen, but Sale did a majority of the work, writing or co-writing all the material. He also played all the instruments and engineered all the songs. Most of these sonic explorations work, but at times they go left of field.

“The Funnest Game” starts the disc and transports Whalen from the ‘20s to the go-go ‘60s as a deep surf guitar and tooting trumpets and trombones punctuate the moody music. “Want You Back” is a jaunty mashed-up tango as Whalen sings about the conflict as she fights desires in wanting an ex-lover back though she’s in a new relationship. She expresses her torment, “I don’t know. I don’t care./ I still see you everywhere./ So go away, don’t come back./ Don’t believe me ‘cause I want you back.”

“You-Who” has got a funky beat as Whalen rattles off the verses, almost rapping. Here the studio becomes more evident as an instrument, creating and combining unnatural sounds. That in combination with Whalen’s strong vocal abilities brings to mind the band Garbage, as do other songs that evoke the style, such as "Meet Me By The Fire" and "Angel." The latter has a slow, plodding percussion and a devilish overtone of streetwalker who is searching for what could be the rest of her life, while all along destroying the lives of others.

Whalen’s voice has a unique sound to make any word in the English vocab sound seductive. This rings true throughout the whole CD, including the title track, a tender ballad where she reveals that she isn’t going to reveal. Her vocals stand out and are allowed to shine to their fullness on “Long,” and it’s too bad more of the songs didn’t follow this model because she gets lost in the mix at times. Whalen sings "In The Night" like a touching country song, but it almost gets lost in the futuristic cacophony, yet "Blur" closes out the album with Whalen only accompanied by a piano. There’s an effect as if we are listening to this track from a scratched record, but her talents are given the full spotlight.

There are a few near-misses that should have spent more time in the lab. "Follow" is an uplifting elegy played on the piano with studio augmentation that fades away momentarily during the middle of the song. There’s a constant beeping throughout the first half of the song that is annoying and should have been cut. "The Garden" is a short 90-second interlude that overdubs three Whalen vocal tracks, but doesn’t really accomplish much. The music of "Three Blind Mice" plods along, creating sounds that don’t sound like they are programmed properly.

Dirty Little Secret is an interesting diversion from the usual jazz stylings that fans of Whalen are accustomed to. Those who are open might find some delightful surprises, but the album occasionally reminds the listener that Whalen’s gifts aren’t fully utilized. Tracks should be sampled first. The can be heard at her website and her MySpace page.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    interesting. different sounds for Whalen and certainly a differnt look. she’s sort of dolled up compared to what she looked like in the Zippers.

    still, i’m probably gonna get this. love her voice…in any context.