Short Cuts

-- Daniel Lovering

Kate Jacobs
Hydrangea
(Bar/None Records)

New Jersey-based Kate Jacobs writes folk and Americana melodies that often lilt and sometimes jangle, and, for her third album, she's chosen her family history as the topic for many of the songs. On Hydrangea the intimate stories based on pictures, letters, and diaries come close to being cloying, but the album ranges broadly in two ways. Thematically several songs explore the way people's choices take them down unexpected -- and sometimes regretful -- paths. Musically two gorgeous, moving choral pieces add weight to the CD. Overall there's a bit too much wistful sweetness and light, but repeated listens reveal more layers than the album first appears to have.

On her catchy folk-pop numbers such as "Shallow" and "A Good Night For Sleeping," Jacobs sounds like Shawn Colvin. The more countrified songs, "Honeybees" and "Good Doctor," could have come from Iris DeMent, although Jacobs' steady-but-soft voice could never be mistaken for DeMent's resounding vocal force. Several cuts resemble lullabies or uncomplicated sing-along tunes; one of these, "Late," is so deliberately gentle -- near-whispered vocals, a softly picked guitar -- it feels as if a light breeze could blow it away.

Jacobs borrows a few lines from the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova as the starting points for "Dream On" and "Because I Have Forgiven Everyone," pieces she wrote and arranged but are sung by children's choirs. The former, performed by the Hudson School Chorus, has a haunting guitar solo that would fit in with the dreamy bleakness of Big Star's Third. The latter, performed by the Mustard Seed School Children's Choir, closes the album on a bittersweet note by examining the way disappointment shades, but doesn't erase, love.

For every moment that resonates, though, there are others that feel too easy. For example, "Good Doctor" features the 12-step line "We know love can hurt sometimes/ It's kindness that makes us free," and the chorus of "Hope Is a Weed" ("Baby bird, is that your voice I heard?") feels like kindergarten song hour. Jacobs shows faith in her audience by walking a fine line between "simple" and "deceptively simple"; the rewards of her complexity are plenty, but on Hydrangea the pleasures of simplicity feel forced.

-- Theresa Everline

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