Born of African-Caribbean descent in Quebec, Kater shares a similar sensibility to Rhiannon Giddens, both in her scratchy banjo led roots-soul and her lyrical concerns of being a woman of colour living in North America. She addressed these on her debut, Sorrow Bound, and extends them further here, taking thematic inspiration from, among other things, the Black Lives Matter movement while musical influences draw on Canadian folk, Appalachian mountain music, blues and jazz.
Recorded in a single day and conceived as a concept album, it opens with the nervy 'Saint Elizabeth', a look at love in the digital age etched out with upright bass, click percussion, trumpet and jazzy guitar courtesy of co-producer Chris Bartos, before moving on to the first of four traditional numbers, 'Little Pink', here given a slow syncopated folk blues rhythm and again featuring upright bass and trumpet with the addition of Bartos on fiddle.
Bartos' five string fiddle is to the fore on the second trad tune, an instrumental arrangement of 'Fine Times at Our House' that also spotlights Kater's banjo, moving on to 'White', a vocal interplay number co-arranged for banjo and choir with her mentor, Emily Miller, the last being the album closer and another fiddle and banjo led instrumental, the sprightly 'Hangman's Reel'.
Everything is a Kater original and, as such, hew closely to her social and political concerns, the sparse but slowly gathering hymnal ballad 'Paradise Fell' and the following more Appalachian-hued gospel blues 'Rising Down' addressing the poverty , oppression and racism at the heart of Black Lives Matter.
By contrast, featuring just Kater's yearning voice and Katherine Manor's polyrhythmic stepdancing percussion, 'Harlem's Little Blackbird' draws on Billie Holiday for a portrait of loneliness in the big city. A brief instrumental interlude, 'Past', sounding a little like an overture, heralds the achingly weary five minute title track, a reference to a square dance formation that has a solitary women in the middle of a circle, but also to the bowling pin that's regularly knocked down that serve as metaphors for feeling an outsider ("These clothes you gave me don't fit right.The belt is loose and the noose is tight") and facing constant setbacks, but never giving in. Featuring a simple arrangement and Béatrix Méthé on harmonies, it's a particular stand out.
Another brief instrumental, the urban dusk ambience of 'Passing', gives way to the piano-led Viper's Nest, a post-apocalypse slow waltzing love song that also features pizzicato fiddle, that sense of mortality spilling over into 'Harvest and the Plough', one of the more Appalachian-coloured tracks, a slow march beat, again with hymnal undertones and mournful strings, the lyrics referencing both the River Styx and Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
I said non-traditional numbers are Kater originals, which is true except that 'Ti Chagrin', the final track before the backwards tape instrumental prelude to 'Hangman's Reel', is actually by Julia Kater, her aunt, who also designed the album artwork, a simple and open banjo and guitar accompanied folksy tune sung in Québécois French.
All of which makes for a terrific and hugely assured piece of work that resonates in both the heart and the mind, both traditional and contemporary, that seems certain to loom large in the end of year roots best of lists.
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