This Is The Kit fans know what to expect now. Kate Stables and her motley crew are five studio albums in, and those five albums have been consistently packed with incredibly catchy folk songs filled with fantastic harmonies, moments of musical tangents that occasionally veer towards jazz, and lyrics that are so specific to Stables that you would immediately know they were hers if you found them randomly scrawled on the back of a toilet door. She is that unique. Consistency is, of course, a good thing in many ways; when I talk of consistency in relation to This Is The Kit, I mean that they always deliver. Each album has been a belter. But too much consistency in a musical career could also be seen as a negative. An inability, or disinterest, in changing things up and testing yourself. I can imagine this being an accusation levelled by those who listen to This Is The Kit with a casual ear.
Because yes, for ten years now we have been treated to albums and songs that have developed only slightly from what came before. But if you compare the songs of 2010 debut Krulle Bol to those now being offered on Off Off On in 2020, you will notice an absolute world of difference. With each album, Stables seems to add a new element to her musicianship. From sparse acoustic guitars in the early days, to the densely layered works we see before us now. ‘No Such Things’ has horns, electric guitars, and driving percussion – and yet it still, at heart, sounds like a simple but beautiful This Is The Kit song. What Kate deserves credit for above all else is that she’s managed, over five albums, to change it up and try new things and yet still make her music feel like it all belongs together and is uniquely hers.
The album previous to this one, Moonshine Freeze, bought an increased level of attention to Kate and the band. And deservedly so. The consensus seemed to be that this success was down to a move away from the acoustic ballads and into some more lively, crowd-pleasing songs – stuff you could really dance to. On Off Off On she has mixed the two formulas together. Songs like ‘Coming to Get You Nowhere’ and ‘This is What You Did’ are certainly capable of causing a few shakes of the hips and shoulders. But what stands out the most to me on this album is how the ballads have been imbibed with an extra impetus, often feeling like the moments when musicians jam together at the end of a long evening and end up creating some of their most expansive and exciting work so far.
‘Carry Us Please’ is one such example. Starting, as it does, in a way that is so typical to this band – it then glides over four minutes of intricate and ever-evolving beauty. The title track is equally affecting. But in ‘Shinbone Soap’, a track which features Aaron Dessner on piano, we have one of the most interesting and involving songs of the band’s career – with a lovely melody throughout that has a real payoff in Kate’s final line ‘the bars of soap holding on a shinbone.’ It’s hard to put the power of that song in to words – I suggest you go and listen.
One more thing that stands out on this album is the message. While Kate has always been a peddler of positivity in her music, there is something extra on offer during Off Off On. I believe this album was written before lockdown, but in songs such as ‘Carry Us Please’ and closer ‘Keep Going’ Kate seems to have caught the perfect tone for our current situation. There’s a beautiful optimism in the face of adversity in these songs – and that shines through not only in the words, but also in the finely crafted music and every pluck of the guitar or banjo strings. It’s an album we could all get something out of in the difficult slog of 2020.
Words by Fran Slater