Katie Blount’s lead single from Dark Water, ‘The American Song’, is as good a place to start with her music as any. It shows who she is an artist. It gives us the sense of the older soul that lives within her modern folk songs; the knack for storytelling, the hint of the political existing under the personal, and the sense that she is someone who excels when her songs have something slightly unusual about them, something that marks them out from the more usual folk fare that does creep in on occasion. There’s a line early in the song where Blount sings about ‘holding on to freedom/as if it was all we could own’, and in that line you hear the tradition she is instilling herself within. But as the song progresses, it becomes something less traditional – walking a fine and well-balanced line between personal and political sentiments. It is one of several highlights on show here.
The opener, and title song, is another such standout. Over a simple yet beautiful acoustic guitar line, Blount opens by telling us that ‘I knew it was over/when you gave me a glimpse into your eyes/and nothing was returned.’ While this might seem to announce a well-worn story in this type of music, Blount manages to tell a slightly different tale. It is definitely a song about lost love, but it becomes one that is also about a steady descent into depression which is backed up with a very effective metaphor tying this loss to the natural world. In both the lyrics and the slightly mismatched melody above the guitar line, Blount again marks herself out as something a little bit unique. It is the perfect opener to the album, drawing the listener in with its tone and its mystery.
She follows this with the slightly less effective ‘Shadowlands’ – a song that does less, in both its lyrics and its makeup, to make itself stand out from the crowd. It’s not a bad song. Not at all. But it is one of two or three occasions on the album where the quality is not quite as high. If anything, though, this only makes the more distinctive songs stand out more strongly. And it as only a couple of songs after ‘Shadowlands’ when she gives us another of those tracks. ‘Tap Dancing to the Blues’ is arguably the best piece of music on the whole LP. It is another song that seems to mix the personal with the societal, and has the standout lyrical couplet on Dark Water: ‘rehearsing in a mirror/which once disfigured you.’ It is a beautiful moment of simplicity on the album and demonstrates her strong way with words.
‘Abandoned Love’ is another stunning and slightly off-kilter off song, and Blount once again displays her lyrical prowess with the line ‘I wish I could have someone you like living in my veins.’ ‘Theatre Café’ is probably another moment when the album dips, and ‘The Lost Conversation’ is good but doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights that have come before. But if there were any concerns that the album might limp out on a whimper, they are set aside by the soaring ‘Orion Sky.’ This is Blount’s best vocal performance. It might be the most simple song on the album in terms of structure, but her voice sends it flying as she once again tells an effortless tale of loss. You can imagine this song closing a set in a silent venue, everyone waiting for the sound of a pin dropping.
Dark Water is a real grower of an album. On first listen, it may appear like one of the many soft folk albums that are trying to find their way into what is currently a very packed genre. But Blount has that extra thing that’s needed. There’s a mysteriousness to a lot of her music, a sense that there is a story underneath the story and you will need to spend some time to understand it. And her songs might sound simple, but she matches beautiful guitar with an often slightly out-of-time vocal melody. It is very effective. Dark Water is full of simple sounding songs that soar on repeated listens.
Words by Fran Slater