There’s a feeling of fine control you get when you listen to a Kim Richey album. Her arrangements are pure country-and-americana. Her songs dig outward in two directions from there, into both folk and pop. And her silvery vocals, burnished with a constant, cool vibrato, lack twangy affectation, sounding almost weirdly non-manipulative – to paradoxically emotional effect.
Richey’s new album Edgeland adheres to this modus operandi, while sponging up creative energy from the contributions of several co-writers, notably Mando Saenz and Yep Roc Records labelmate Chuck Prophet.
The opening track “The Red Line” sets the tone, a sigh of ennui and indecision by Richey and Saenz that opens with a few uncertainly plucked notes and settles into a squared-off rhythm and a smoky plaint: “The conductor gave the signal but I’d left it for too late / I meant to buy a ticket – I meant to make the call / Guess I’ll smoke another cigarette and lean against the wall / And watch the world go by.” Not a position of strength! But decisiveness returns with the infectious gem “Chase Wild Horses,” even if it’s firmness about giving up an impossible dream: “I tried to race my demons down the longest mile / I ran my best but they ran better.”
The muted, almost blocky sound of “Pin a Rose,” co-written with Prophet and reinforced by his octave-below vocals, instantly worms its way into your emotional response center. Its haunting chorus resonates with anyone who’s watched helplessly as a friend makes terrible choices. I’ve found myself listening to it repeatedly.
“High Time” with its lullaby ease and “The Get Together,” both co-written with Saenz, tread close to the treacherous cliff of over-simplicity – appropriately on an album called Edgeland – but in the end make softly distinctive statements, harmonies rising into the ether.
The weird “Leaving Song” adds tooth-grinding spice, with Everly Brothers-style harmonies (Richey joined by Pat McLaughlin, who co-wrote the song along with NRBQ’s Al Anderson) floating over a sparse, rootsy bounce driven by Dan Cohen’s forceful electric banjo.
The riff-driven “Can’t Let You Go” is the closest thing here to country-rock, with guitar tracks contributed by Robyn Hitchcock, co-writer Prophet, and Doug Lancio, who has been a big part of John Hiatt’s ultra-rootsy late-period albums. But the catchy “I Tried” (co-written with Bill Deasy) leads into something of a let-down, as weaker, vaguer songs fill out the final third of the album.
There’s a folky, ear-pleasing miniature at the end, though, even if the lyrics of “Whistle on Occasion” don’t make much sense. Melody, harmony, and pure musicianship have a pleasing semantics of their own. Kim Richey and her collaborators tap into it deeply on Edgeland, which comes out March 30 on Yep Roc and is available for pre-order now.