Kim Richey's new CD Chinese Boxes straddles the edges of pop. Songs like "Jack and Jill" and the title track almost feel like they came out of the 1970s, with jaunty Bacharach-like beats and happy frills from triangles and trumpets. But the songs on Chinese Boxes are also almost painfully concise. They're pretty and sweet and emotional but do it all with the economy of a straight-set victory. The waltz ballad "Drift" shines with a gorgeous little melody you can't blink out of your head when it's over, which is almost too soon. It's one of those tunes that sound like they've existed since the dawn of humanity.
"The Absence of Your Company" and "Turn Me" nod towards country music, but only in the way Rosanne Cash's recent work does, which is mostly by fulfilling the old saw that country is music for grownups. Though Richey is known for writing songs for country artists, this CD suggests neither Nashville nor any other place in particular. It's not that Richey synthesizes different styles into one of her own. It's that her music is just about as style-free as pop can be. Emotional purity in both songwriting and singing is what makes Chinese Boxes such a superb album.
The chorus of "Turn Me" has a melody that resembles one by Tori Amos, but the red-headed faerie would never write lyrics like "Words don't matter, you only need to understand/I'm not going anywhere without you." Richey's songs are simply about human relationships. Her artistry is in distilling thoughts and feelings and conflicts that in real life are endlessly confounding, into precisely and beautifully wrapped packages of words and music. No fancy bows and ribbons are needed.
"I Will Follow" has a youthful bounce, as if the girl within the woman were coming up for air. "One step forward, two steps back/So funny I forgot to laugh/Lead me down the garden path/And I will follow." Then the melancholy "Something to Say" shakes you gently with "When I get my head around/What it is that keeps me down/Wouldn't that be something?" It's a small, gleaming catharsis, made the more wrenching by ending on an unresolved chord.
Chinese Boxes is going right up on the same shelf of honor in my collection as Rosanne Cash's Black Cadillac. And with the rocker "Not a Love Like This" we're back in Cash territory. Richey's velvety voice here reaches its peak of intensity as the milk chocolate turns into a fancy bar of 70% cocoa. Following that hard-driving climax, Richey gives us "Another Day," which joins a soulful verse with a Celtic-flavored chorus melody. It works like a lucky charm. And the album closes with the gently shuffling ballad "Pretty Picture," another dose of satisfying, cathartic sadness.
Giles Martin's subtle production makes the CD sound good at various volumes. But if you put it on loud, and you're in a receptive mood, its 32 minutes are almost too much to take. As Richey sings, "On the the tip of your tongue are all the words you never say/Don't let another day go by." Grab this.