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Album review: Kaia Kater “Nine Pin”

September 2, 2016

Nine Pin is a stunning album of understated clarity and insight, effortlessly bridging the past and the present to create a blueprint for the future.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of Kaia Kater 'Nine Pin'Canadian-born Kaia Kater’s second album Nine Pin takes as its inspiration a number of themes, including the Black Lives Matter movement, Kaia’s own experiences as a woman of color living in North America, as well as drawing on her own love of Canadian folk music and Appalachian music.

The lyric to the opening ‘Saint Elizabeth’ is a personal narrative around the theme of life and love in the digital age while the arrangement is a showcase of the hallmarks of Kaia’s musical style with her distinctive banjo-playing technique and richly emotive voice rightly taking pride of place. Brian Kobayakawa’s upright bass provides a solid rhythmic platform over which Chris Bartos’ jazzy electric guitar and Caleb Hamilton’s muted trumpet add depth and timbre.

The slow syncopated groove of the traditional ‘Little Pink’, about love gone bad, is given an urgency by Kaia’s double-time strumming. The interplay between Brian’s upright bass and the rhythmic interventions of Caleb’s trumpet interventions and Chris’ fiddle supports Kaia’s retelling of the ancient story of insecurity and jealousy.

It’s a testament to Kaia’s skill as a lyricist that the following pair of songs, ‘Paradise Fell’ and ‘Rising Down’ – both inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement – can include thought-provoking political points within what may seem to be simple descriptive narratives. It’s a powerful combination – think of Abel Meeropol’s 1937 poem Strange Fruit, as interpreted by Billie Holiday – poverty, racism and the host of daily microaggressions inflicted on Black people the world over are all invoked with grace and subtlety. ‘Rising Down’ in particular should be enough to make any white person reflect on the part she plays in these continuing inequalities and what she can contribute to the vital process of anti-oppression work. There’s no doubt in my mind that these two songs together are the highlight of the album, more than worth the price of admission on their own.

‘Harlem’s Little Blackbird’ features Kaia’s exquisite, velvety voice over Katherine Manor’s complex polyrhythmic foot percussion; it’s a deceptively sparse arrangement with a gently cascading melody which I still find myself humming hours later, while its subject matter – the loneliness of life in a big city – is something which is sure to chime with many listeners’ experiences.

The short instrumental interlude ‘Past’ evokes images of misty summer sunrises and offers a welcome moment of reflection which is echoed in the album’s title track, ‘Nine Pin’. The sleeve notes point out that the term comes from “a traditional square dance formation in which a woman stands alone in the middle of a circle of people turning around her”, adding that there’s a double meaning at play as the nine pin is also “one of the pins in bowling that keeps getting knocked down”. The metaphor of resilience in the face of continuous setbacks is perfectly suited to the song’s world-weary lyric – an outstanding piece of writing in its own right – while the languorous arrangement floats like a leaf on a stream, with Béatrix Méthé’s crystal harmonies glinting like flashes of reflected sunlight. A treat for the ears, balm for the troubled soul and one of my favourite songs on the album.

The instrumental arrangement of the traditional ‘Fine Times at Our House’ is entirely in keeping with the album’s themes; attributed to the West Virginia fiddler Edwin ‘Edden’ Hammons, whose family, collectively, exerted a huge influence on what’s now termed old-time music. It spotlights not only Chris Bartos’ mastery of the 5-string fiddle but also Kaia’s own skills as a banjo player. The live version on YouTube is also well worth seeking out, not least for the added bonus of Kaia’s demonstration of her flatfoot dancing skills (sometimes known as clogging).

The almost ambient jazz interlude, ‘Passing’, another short instrumental, makes a calming introduction to ‘Viper’s Nest’. A love poem of sorts, set in an imagined apocalyptic future, carried on slow waves of arpeggiated piano, pizzicato fiddle and synthesised string pads, it creates and sustains a tense atmosphere of foreboding which finds its resolution in ‘White’, which follows it. In the sleeve notes, Kaia explains that ‘White’ is a shape-note song which she came to know through Emily Miller of Davis & Elkins College. Kaia and Emily adapted this traditional tune for a 2015 performance featuring banjo and choir. The arrangement here features a scaled back version of the choir but is no less compelling for that. The theme of facing the end of one’s life with equanimity broached in ‘White’ recurs in ‘Harvest and the Plough’. It’s a subject which has been a mainstay of many folk music traditions for a very long time and treated in many different ways. I must admit that I’ve been quite taken by the sense of gentleness and empathy which permeates Kaia’s arrangements in both these songs; there’s a quiet dignity at the heart of each which is as moving as it is comforting.

Written by Julia Kater and sung in (I presume) Québécois French, ‘Ti Chagrin’ is a fine slice of contemporary folk. Taken at a stately pace and replete with slow chords and sparkling guitar fills, Kaia’s vocals sound mellow and assured on a production which feels as open as the skies.

The slightly disconcerting ‘To Come’ – which I think is the earlier short instrumental ‘Past’ played backwards – leads into the album’s closer, ‘Hangman’s Reel’. Like many traditional tunes, it’s been covered many times by a host of musicians. I’m familiar with the Fairport Convention live version from 1970 (on Island Records’ 2007 release Live at the BBC) in which the late Dave Swarbrick, in the words of a contributor to this mudcat.org discussion on the tune’s origins, “absolutely attacked it and left it gasping on the floor”. Kaia and Chris adopt a more relaxed but no less assertive approach and the song brings the album to its close in a satisfyingly decisive manner.

Nine Pin is an immediate and powerful album which showcases Kaia Kater’s skills as a musician, writer and performer whose creative vision stands at the intersections of traditional and contemporary folk and roots musics, reclaiming and celebrating the role of Black people of African-Canadian, African-Caribbean and African-American descent in a form of music too often appropriated by white people. But although grounded in traditional Appalachian folk music, what makes Nine Pin stand out from the crowd is Kaia’s openness to contemporary music from a range of genres. The result is a stunningly good album of understated clarity and insight, effortlessly bridging the past and the present to create a blueprint for the future.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (02 September 2016)

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