There’s a tenth album coming soon from North Carolina (via Texas, Massachusetts and New York) singer/songwriter/activist, Jess Klein. The emotional or spiritual, or for that matter musical, territory it will explore is not entirely clear but if the previous nine records plus a couple of live albums and a spoken word piece – many of which have been reviewed here, like 2019’s Back To My Green – are any indication, it’s gonna be good.
In preparation, Wind Back Wednesday goes back to my first sighting, her second album for Rykodisc in 2005, and a collection bursting out of its skin with pop pleasures. This album never fails to rekindle joy, and the question which ends the review still is relevant.
Strawberry Lover (Ryko/Stomp)
TO UNDERSTAND WHY Jess Klein should be in your record collection right now – no, don’t wait, take this review and read it as you head towards your nearest purveyor of good music – it may help to re-organise some all too easily thrown around terms.
We’ve been awash in “post-punk” bands lately, those people taking a cool-eyed funk approach to rock songs with yapping choruses, much as many a grim looking but secretly melodic band did in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. But after punk it wasn’t just tight rhythms and yelping vocals. There were people like the Pretenders, Nick Lowe, Rachel Sweet and Elvis Costello doing things with rock songs (and, whisper it, some country song ideas too) which were as enjoyable as anything from the golden years of the mid ‘60s.
So “post punk” also meant the return of the pop song in its many forms and about 30 seconds into Darkroom, the first song on Jess Klein’s album, you are reminded why that’s a damn good thing.
Here comes Klein like a more countryfied Rachel Sweet – or a sweeter Dave Edmunds – over an insistent Motown-meets-Chelsea punch. Two songs on, in Sink My Teeth In, you can hear echoes of Chrissie Hynde as a dash of jangling guitar precedes a chorus you could build a house on. And later in Office Girl, Klein and perfectly pitched backing vocals bring to the party both Spector girl groups and the Bangles when they were a top-notch guitar pop band (search out their first album All Over The Place if you’re scoffing at that notion).
But this album isn’t some skinny tie convention. Klein’s muse runs to country and country/soul too. There’s the gorgeously sad early double of the jukebox ballad Shonalee and Strawberry Lover’s last waltz of the night – two songs only topped in their Lucinda Williams moves by the beer-and-tears-soaked album closer, Willing To Change – while elsewhere, Ribbons is steeped in Emmylou Harris, Soda Water has a louche saloon tempo and Shootout At The Candy Shop could have arrived on the last Tift Merritt album.
To complete the package, Klein has a voice worth reckoning with, both warm and knowing, and lyrics worth reading not just hearing. There’s nothing splashy about either weapon; just simplicity done well, whether it’s the waitress working the late shift at a cheap diner in Shonalee or the way Klein brings to Soda Water a drawl which says I’ve been in this bar long enough to have tried all the drinks behind the bar and all the men in front of it, and I’ve outlasted them all.
It’s an excellent album. Have you bought it yet?