There’s a catch in Kate Mills‘ voice in the very first line she sings on her new album Each Bittersweet Drop. She longs in that opening track, “Fall Apart,” for “the off-switch to my brain.” As in a musical theater work, it’s her “I want” number. Fortified with a memorable hook and a stirring arrangement, it sets up the whole ride – a ride that does the opposite of falling apart.
These nine tracks sit together very well. Bathed in glowing country-music arrangements, they’re lit by harmonies that betray a fully switched-on creative brain. Those tight, full-throated harmonies also cry “Nashville” – but Mills is a New York City-based artist, with the urbane sophistication to match.
While dealing with standard tropes of love and loss, Mills and her co-writers don’t get stuck in clichés. “Did you think that you could hide behind your stoic stare?” she shouts at a betrayer in the dramatic “What Did You Think?,” a track that recalls Etta James at her most rocking. The steely “Outrun the Night,” about facing your inner demons, could, with a tweaked arrangement, be an anthem by Delta Rae – or even a hard rock band like Halestorm. But its classic-rock drive eases off for a quiet bridge flecked by gentle piano lines – the different facets of Mills and her creative team displayed within the confines of one song.
“Cold Spring” lays out in plain language the mysterious calamity of death. “I don’t understand how this could be part of some divine plan.” Still, the painful loss of a loved one draws poetry from the bereaved: “If the sunlight had just broken through/If this song could have made it to you.”
A different kind of ending is the subject of “No Good at Goodbyes,” which speaks to anyone who has struggled to disentangle from a relationship they know isn’t good for them, and yet…
What makes these time-honored themes work so well is the skillful songwriting – catchy melodies, smart lyrics, solid structure – the sensitively calibrated arrangements, and the well-balanced production by Joseph Anthony Secchiaroli. Secchiaroli also provides excellent bass work – listen to it, for example, in the final track, “Turn to Me.”
A couple of songs sink too far into sentiment for my taste – “No Yellow Brick Road,” “Lights Fade.” But artful arrangements and pretty melodies make them easily listenable, even if less distinguished than the album’s best. And as a whole this concise 35-minute opus punches well above its weight. It should appeal especially to fans of artists like Brandi Carlile and Kacey Musgraves.
Kate Mills’ Each Bittersweet Drop is available now.