I bought this CD from the artist on a Saturday evening a couple weeks ago at the Record Bar. It didn’t get reviewed in Rolling Stone, and Metacritic doesn’t have an entry for Kristie Stemel. There’s no big marketing machine behind this, no slick production, no focus groups to tweak the lyrics and no billboards to let us know her concert dates. Just a determined musician stubborn enough to think she can make something out of a home studio, a few friends, and a willingness to play venues before it’s even dark out.
Let me talk about the live show before I tackle the album. I’d never heard of Kristie Stremel, and we only went because a friend/musician from Springfield told us he was going to be there, and we wanted to hang out with him. A 7:00 show, it always feels a bit weird to be drinking beer and watching a band while the bright sun still shines whenever people part the curtains.
Live music is transporting. You can’t help but get wrapped up in it when a singer is having a blast, the guitarists are wringing notes out of a simple guitar, and the bass player stands there backing up the whole thing like a stoic god. “Why don’t I do this more often?” bugs the back of my mind. (The only reason I can think of is the just-barely-controllable desire to do something mean to the inconsiderate idiots who shout conversations over the music.)
If you get the chance to see Kristie Stemel live, just do it. She rocks on her low-slung guitar and makes it all fun. It’s worth venturing out of your living room for the evening, I promise.
On to the album, which I’ve probably delayed because it’s hard to get this exactly right. I like this album a lot – it has some infectious pop songs and some plain beautiful numbers. That said, it has a few songs that kind of land with a thump, but they don’t ruin the album at all. They just make it human and, in a way, even more inspiring, when you think about the lack of a safety net. This woman wrote the music, recruited friends to play with her, recorded and produced the CD in her home studio, chose the cover art, booked the dates of her tour, and showed up to rock the house. If “String Theory” kind of lapses into three minutes of formulaic rock, well, too bad – she’s mixing up sounds on this album, and someone else might love it.
One of Kristie Stemel’s real strengths is her range, both in her voice and her music. I sometimes get bored with artists who can sing three pretty notes and that’s it, but Kristie covers the range from a growl to a clear high note expressively and dead on. One of my favorites on the album is “Friendville”, a quiet number with some great guitar work that shows off her vocal range. “Breaking up with Dreams” is a majestic anthem, and “Sun Sky and the Moon” is just a beautiful song.
At this stage of her career, Kristie Stemel won’t be the fresh-faced phenom like Kacey Musgraves is, but if you like female troubadours like Karla Bonoff or Tracy Chapman you ought to find one of her shows, listen to the music (if you’re going to shout over it, stay home, please!), have a great time and hand over $10 for a CD after the show. That’s how you support artists who are working hard and deserve it.
Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin notices similarities to other female rockers, like Lucinda Williams, Pat Benatar, and Amy Rigby, and agrees with me that this is some really nice home-grown rock and roll.
I just noticed that Kristie Stemel will be performing an acoustic show with Holmes Street and Adriana Nikole at Californo’s in Westport on June 21. Yeah, you should be there, unless you talk too much. (If you can’t make it to a show, you can buy her music on iTunes here or from her own website.)
Next Up: St. Vincent, by St. Vincent