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V/A - Loving Takes This Course: A Tribute to the Songs of Kath Bloom

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Artist: V/A

Album: Loving Takes This Course: A Tribute to the Songs of Kath Bloom

Label: Chapter Music

Review date: Sep. 1, 2009

Kath Bloom recorded a number of albums and singles between 1978 and 1984. Her next record, a self-released CD, came out in 1999. In between, it seems, she raised her children alone and endured some financial difficulty. It’s kind of absurd to see this trope repeated over and over as various female singer-songwriters are lifted up from obscurity – yes, it’s nice to see them reissued, but why do the Blooms and Anne Briggses and Vashti Bunyans and Judee Sills vanish so thoroughly from the folk-rock pantheons, such that they need revivals like this?

Loving Takes This Course makes the case for Bloom’s work with two CDs with near-identical tracklists, one Bloom’s originals and the other covers of these songs by the likes of Devendra Banhart, Mark Kozelek and Scout Niblett. The presence of these big names will, hopefully, call attention to Bloom’s excellently peculiar material, but a covers record seems the wrong format for her work.

Bloom began her career in New Haven in the late ’70s, releasing her last album before a fifteen-year break in 1984. At that time, she worked with the composer and experimental guitarist Loren MazzaCane Conners. Bloom wrote gentle, major-key melodies with appealingly direct lyrics about love and shifty dudes. She sings in a tremulous, wavery warble, like someone who’s halfway trying to imitate Joan Baez but mostly figuring out what comes naturally. Far from conventionally pretty – not crystal-clear, not totally on-key, not always entirely in control – her voice amplifies her songs’ distinctiveness. On “Ready or Not,” for instance, a strident song about winning over a lover, the unevenness of her voice gives the song a great tentativeness, like she’s convincing both herself and the dude she’s talking to that she’s going to go for it: Ready or not, here I come.

Conners and Bloom’s instrumental accompaniments (crafted by Conners, Bloom, and some collaborators) make these songs even weirder. On “The Breeze/My Baby Cries,” for instance, one guitar plays a pretty finger-picked melody while Conners plays off-kilter solo riffs that don’t necessarily match up to the song’s phrasing. Either a musical saw made an appearance, or the blending of Bloom’s vocal swoops and Connors’ playing creates that kind of ghostly ambiance. Some songs, like “Forget About Him” and “I Wanna Love,” lean towards country-rock; other, like “In Your School” and “Come Here,” are fine, sparse examples of the kind of folk songs being written at that time. Bloom’s work is not far from something pleasant one’s parents might listen to, but each song has its own oddness, its own nuance that demands attention.

Since the draw of Bloom’s music lies in the convergence of songwriting and performance, it’s almost a disservice to present a covers record of her songs. Her work stands alone, and it’s good not because she wrote great songs or had a weird voice or recorded her work sparely, but because of the combination of all those elements. Banhart’s “Forget About Him” bears a close but inferior resemblance to the original performance; Mia Doi Todd has a stunning voice and does a lovely version of “Ready or Not” – but so does Kath Bloom. Some artists, like Bill Callahan and Mick Turner & Peggy Frew lead Bloom’s material down an unfortunate adult-alternative sounding path. Bloom’s parable “There Was A Boy” works with finger-picked guitar accompaniment on her original, but sounds corny when Meg Baird trills it along to her solo piano playing.

Are people just embarrassed by the idea of a female folksinger with a guitar, such that they need to soup things up? Did they just get so unfashionable and mom-friendly that in order to acceptably buy one of their records, it has to be endorsed by some hip dude, whether that’s Banhart (as Vashti Bunyan was) or by, uh, Richard Linklater, whose use of “Come Here” in Before Sunrise led to Bloom’s tentative reentry into songwriting? Speaking of parent-friendly, this comp would make a great Christmas gift: Carefully repackage the covers record for the Lucinda Williams fan in your life, and keep the original half for repeated, rewarding listens.

By Talya Cooper

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