Graded on a Curve:
Kaia Kater,
Grenades

Grenadian-Canadian vocalist, songwriter and banjo player Kaia Kater released her first full-length in 2015, a remarkably assured effort that illuminated strength and sweetness of voice, nimbleness of finger, and an aptitude for integrating roots-folk knowledge into a robust contemporary framework without much strain; it’s a combination that has endured and yet been transformed on her latest release and vinyl debut Grenades, a concept album delving into her experience in relation to her father’s journey to Canada as a political refugee. If highly personal, the record’s considerable beauty is also quite timely. The wax is out January 11 through Smithsonian Folkways.

“New Colossus,” the opening track from Kaia Kater’s third album, greets the listener with strummed guitar, lap steel, unfussy drumming, subtle upright bass, and the appealing voice of the songwriter. It’s a welcoming if fairly modest scenario that gets shrewdly interjected with a soaring tempo shift in the chorus, a maneuver underscoring her talent in building a tune, and it could very likely lead newcomers to Kater’s music to an impression of the artist as purveyor of smart contemporary Americana-tinged folk-pop.

But that’s only part of her skillset, as the following cut “Heavenly Track” finds Kater shifting to banjo, though her deftness on the instrument shines a little more brightly in the next song “Canyonland,” the two selections unifying with the progressions made on her prior releases, namely first album Sorrow Bound, the preceding 2013 EP “Old Soul” and the subsequent 2016 CD Nine Pin. It’s a trifecta that frequently put instrumental prowess in the foreground.

This is not to suggest that Grenades presents an abrupt blooming of songwriting in the bud, as strength of tune has been a part of Kater’s thing from the start. “Canyonland” does establish continued growth and confidence of song, but in terms of ambition in album construction, it’s the next track “(Power! Power! Power!),” the first of three narrative interludes interspersed throughout the record, that reinforces a considerable leap forward.

The brief spoken pieces capture her father relating first his memory of Maurice Bishop’s socialist uprising in 1979 Grenada, second the US invasion of the island in 1983 as ordered by Ronald Reagan, and last his decision to migrate alone to Canada as a political refugee at age 14. Their inclusion adds insight and weight to Grenades without disrupting the music’s flow, in part because the first is followed by the bright and short a cappella offering “La Misère,” with Kater and a group of three backing vocalists unfurling a sweet dialogue mostly in French.

Born in Montreal as a second-generation Grenadian-Canadian, Kater describes Grenades in her liner notes as having two homes and two seasons. The first was a room in her apartment in Toronto during winter, the second a house in St. George’s, Grenada in spring. As “Meridian Ground” returns to the blended sound of the first three tracks, the record amplifies her Canadian and Grenadian background while somewhat minimizing (but never disguising) her formative time spent absorbing Appalachian music in West Virginia.

To put a finer point on it, across her earlier releases, the old-time root was unmistakable, but in the suitably warm and undeniably poppish “Sunny Day” the banjo is one ingredient and something of an undercurrent. Much more prevalent are clean electric guitar lines that soar and glide like gulls at the beach. After the second interlude “(Death of a Dream),” the album’s title track adjusts into a jazzy-soulful singer-songwriter zone deepened with keyboards but successfully realized through Kater’s rich vocals; the standout a cappella “Hydrants,” this time solo, further spotlights her talents as a singer.

Her voice is no less integral to the success of “Everly,” though the lap steel, acoustic guitar, and upright bass lend cohesiveness in the folky Americana department. From there, “The Right One” scales back to banjo, upright bass and vocals and is sorta the exception to Kater’s alteration in old-time focus. However, in combination with the narrative interludes the song’s lyrics effectively magnify Grenades’ concept.

It’s impossible to hear her repeat the line “Let the right one in” and not think of the recent odious upswing in the desire for “merit-based immigration.” Directly after, the final spoken piece “(Off the Plane)” relates her father’s decision to travel to Canada and reinforces the plight of the refugee in general, resonating as personal for Kater but also universal and relevant to the moment.

“Poets Be Buried” ties together all of Kater’s strengths; thematic, lyrical, vocal, instrumental, and of song and arrangement to deliver a wonderful finale. In the intro above, Sorrow Bound is described as being remarkably assured, but that’s not necessarily the same as accomplished. Her latest is certainly both, and the personal nature of its conceptual stride forward means she could either effectively continue on a similar path or scale things back with little or no sense of diminished returns. Grenades is ultimately a multifaceted record of numerous possibilities and a joy to listen to.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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