Lamplight is the second full-length album by singer-songwriter Katie Costello. Her 2008 debut, Kaleidoscope Machine, released when she was sixteen years old, was a startlingly self-assured collection of mostly languid, melodic pop ballads. Her five-song EP, The City In Me (released last fall), demonstrated clear growth in terms of songwriting as well as vocal interpretation. I was immediately hooked after exploring these releases, not to mention puzzled that Costello isn’t more widely known.
Here’s the good news: Lamplight is her best work yet. Costello’s songs are loaded with subtle hooks, the lasting kind that sink in over time. I’ve had the opportunity to spend considerable time with this album prior to expressing these thoughts. Though I liked it right away, my appreciation continued to grow after weeks of repeated listening. Just when I thought I had fully digested the dozen tunes, I gave it a spin through headphones; all sorts of tiny little quirks in the arrangements jumped out, resulting in a fresh listening experience. Producer Tony Berg was clearly an excellent match for Costello’s style. Lamplight is more sonically varied than her debut, with a greater emphasis on rhythmic variety.
In some alternate universe, the album-opening “Cassette Tape” (co-written with Caitlin Raftery) is sitting comfortably at the top of the charts. It’s an infectiously cheerful rant about the difficulties of making new friends (“I hate talking and I hate walking next to someone I don’t know”). The sound is utterly delicious for lovers of hooky sing-alongs. With a little luck, this song will get some exposure because it’s exactly the kind of perfect pop creation that exemplifies all of Costello’s strengths. There’s always room for well-crafted pop songs, even if the claim could reasonably be made that this stuff is too low-key for the current marketplace.
Other highlights include a duet with UK singer-songwriter Greg Holden, the sweetly swaying “Out Of Our Minds.” Adding a dash of rock guitar and heavier drums to the mix is “No Shelter.” I almost expected a cover of “These Boots Were Made For Walking” with that descending bass intro, but the similarity ends there. “Dig A Hole” is cut from the same cloth, with a thicker production than most of her material. Then there’s the ponderous “Despite Time,” with lyrics that include a laundry list of inscrutable questions. With an arrangement accented by Beatlesque mellotron (sounds like it, at least) and jarring rhythmic shifts, it’s musically sound despite the lyrical lapse. “People: A Theory” recalls Transformer-era Lou Reed (I’m thinking specifically of “New York Telephone Conversation”).
Katie Costello is a songwriter of the classic pop mold. There isn’t anything remotely au courant about her sound, which actually allows her to be more widely accessible. Everything on Lamplight could have been released decades ago, but that sense of timelessness works in her favor. For points of reference think of songwriters like Ray Davies, Roy Wood, and Chris White. Yes, those guys are well established royalty and no, Costello isn’t there yet. But she has demonstrated a comprehensive understanding of pop songcraft before even turning twenty. Her melodies take interesting turns when least expected. Her arrangements are similarly unpredictable.
There’s nothing showy about Costello’s vocal style, but she puts her songs across with grace. Her lyrics are relatable largely because they express emotional frustration without being overly angsty. There’s a maturity and thoughtfulness in her best writing that goes well beyond her years. Nowhere is this more evident than on the epic “The Weirds,” my nomination for best track on the album. This deeply resonant ballad conveys crippling ennui as well as any I’ve heard. She sings of holding “staring contests with eggshell-tinted walls,” flatly declaring, “I’ve overstayed my welcome in this life.” But luckily Costello has her music to combat “the weirds.” Those willing to seek out and listen to her music will benefit similarly.