Kyle Craft is a 27 year old solo artist, this week see’s the release of his debut album Dolls Of Highland via the legendary Sub Pop label. The current incarnation of his backing band is comprised of drummer Haven Multz, ivory-tinkler Daniel Talmadge, guitarist Jeremy Padot, oragnist Ben Steinmetz and bass player Mayhaw Hoons.
Kyle Craft’s music inhabits a world where honky-tonk pianos sit comfortably next to stomping glam drum-beats, and swirlling psych-folk organs share space with rich West-coast harmonies. The disparate elements are all held together by Kyle’s ragged, impassioned, howl of a vocal, leading to a sound that is at once familiar but uniquely the work of Kyle Craft.
Although like many other musicians Kyle has ended up in Portland, he’s originally from a small town call Shreveport in Louisiana. As well as being the title of an excellent song by The Walkmen, Louisiana is also the 25th most populous state in the United States of America, which by our reckoning means it’s bang in the middle. The state is named after the enigmatic Sun King himself, Louis XIV. Louis’ parting words to the world, and his heir apparent, were the rather excellent, “Do not follow the bad example which I have set you; I have often undertaken war too lightly and have sustained it for vanity. Do not imitate me, but be a peaceful prince, and may you apply yourself principally to the alleviation of the burdens of your subjects.” Good advice for everyone of course, but anyway back on topic, Louisiana is famous for it’s rich heritage of creating diverse music, from the creole and cajun music of Southern Louisiana, through to New Orleans’ history of Dixieland jazz and blues. Famous musical offspring include Louis Armstrong, Britney Spears and one of our favourite acts, Hurray For The Riff Raff.
Kyle traces his musical routes back to picking up a copy of David Bowie’s greatest hits at a K-Mart. Kyle then proceeded to self-teach himself to play numerous instruments, and he plays the vast majority of his debut album, Lady Of The Highland, himself. That album is out this week via Sub Pop.
Whilst some musicians, Rufus Wainwright for example, seem to have been born into a world where music is utterly the norm, Kyle Craft’s path is entirely different. Growing up in a music less household, in a sleepy, town in the heart of Louisiana, that no bands ever came through, Kyle’s path to music is more unlikely, and his take on it more self-taught. His sound takes the music he discovered, classic alternative stars from Bob Dylan to David Bowie, and fuses them with his hard-worn Southern soul. He may not have realised he was hearing the music of Louisiana, but infused into his music are the sounds and the stories of the life he had no choice but to live.
In many ways Kyle is a classic storyteller, a professed disciple of the work of Bob Dylan, Kyle too seems to dabble in stories of the character he’s met along the way, with the result that it’s only with repeat listen that you get to discover his own story. On his album, Lady Of The Highland, there’s a rich array of strong-minded, flirtatious and crucially indecisive women, who make no apology for living their lives and leaving a string of men strewn and broken in their wake. There’s Black Mary, who has a string of men who, “scratch at your door in the dead of the night, foaming at the mouth screaming take a side.” There’s the titular Jane from Jane Beat The Reaper, who stands up to Death and screams “no-one takes a party from me” but ultimately is left pleading, “who can take this hurt out of me?” Then there’s Berlin; not a city but a girl, even if the track does have a suitable amount of glam-cabaret stomp to bring to mind the seedy underbelly of the German capital. Berlin sounds like the definition of trouble, as “she swings around a poll slow and her prom dress slips off” but as Kyle notes, “she ain’t the kind of woman to have one boy she calls.” Initially they might seem like a series of individual women, but his clear obsession suggests that at the heart of his songwriting is Kyle’s own inability to tie down a relationship, the tales of promiscuity and tease, never seem to end with Kyle anything other than alone with his memories.
For a debut album, the musicality and ambition displayed on Dolls Of Highland is remarkable. The albums lead single, Lady Of The Ark, is a fine example: it starts a blur of chugging acoustic guitars, morphs into huge reverberating Spectorish drums and heavy, rumbling bass notes, and then take a turn for the Balkans, as the accordions wash in and the drums pick out a solid, double-time, march. It brings to mind the work of Neutral Milk Hotel, not least because of the vocal similarities between Kyle and Jeff Magnum, they share an ability to express passion and pain, without the need for much in the way of complicated melody; just raw, rasping, realness.
For the most part the musical pallet of the record is set, but there’s enough variety to keep the listener’s attention; via multi-tracked vocals and expansive soft-rock guitar work, Trinidad Beach (Before I Ride) hints at the influence of Pink Floyd, while Gloom Girl has a frankly beautiful instrumental, horn intro. Throughout the rest of the album Kyle manages to manipulate subtle shifts in mood to stunning affect. Future Midcity Massacre is quietly more upbeat even if the lyrics explore a darker, more maudlin territory, Kyle wearily noting, “it always take me by surprise how effortless your good times seem to be.” Arguably the albums most arresting moment is left until last, closing track Three Candles (sadly not a tribute to the late Ronnie Corbett), is a genuinely heartfelt track about the difficulty in moving on from a failed relationship. Over a backdrop of harmonica, and the albums gentlest acoustic guitars Kyle looks on with jealous eyes, declaring “take it away, I can’t stand to see you holding him, the way you held me.” An electric guitar enters, so nimble and lithe it seems to almost have a concurrent story of it’s own to tell, as it flutters melodically around the vocal melody. The track ends not with resolution, but with a slight bitterness, Kyle engulfed in envy as he insists, “he’s bound to taste right, he’s bound to make sense, but he’ll never kiss you the way that I did.” It might lack resolution, but like the album it closes, it’s a track that feels very raw, and very human.
The real question with Kyle’s work, as with any unique singer is are you able to accept the marmite nature of his vocal chords. There will be plenty put off by the abrahsive rasp, but for each person who can’t accept it, there will be many utterly enthralled by this most unique of instruments; we fall firmly in the latter category.
Dolls Of Highland is out April 29th via Sub Pop. Kyle Craft is currently on tour in the US, click HERE for details.