“You’re watching everything you say
In each decision, you’re scared of a mistake
It’s like you’re waiting for life to shoot you down
Like you’re preparing for when you hit the ground
There’s no need to be frantic and hurried
There’s no need to be anxious or worried
I still believe you’ll land on your feet…”
Land On Your Feet – Karen Kosowski
It is a music lover’s delight when artists he or she enjoys grow better with every album released; it’s rare that an artist manages to not only reach but raise the bar with each new project (The Beekeeper by Tori Amos or Rilo Kiley’s Under The Blacklight, as evidence of the rarity, anyone?). It almost (and I do stress that word) makes you want to ask the artist to stop producing, so that this magical experience can never be disrupted by a melody that doesn’t quite jive, lyrics that don’t quite resonate, compositions that don’t gel as one would wish.
But then, you’d be depriving yourself of amazing tunes sure to spring from the pen and pipes of said artist. And that, my friends, will not do.
The preamble, which is about to go somewhere, is here because Karen Kosowski has somehow managed to be one of those artists. For those who are familiar with the entire catalogue from Rogue’s Gallery to the riveting Out Here At Sea, you’ll likely understand when I say that Karen has been evolving, slowly but surely. The potential and promise have always been there from the start; the Karen of Live At Rogue’s Gallery (no longer available, my pretties) has raw vocal talent and a knack for clever melodies and emotional lyrics, but she’s still finding her voice, still growing into her powerful pipes. Planet demonstrates what Karen can do in a studio, and her voice is stronger, but not quite there. It reminds me of Ani Difranco circa Puddle Dive, an album that for me is hits and misses, where Ms. Ani is still finding the precise formula of lyrics+music+delivery+production=brilliance. The evolution continued with Optimist Party, a fan favourite without question, and the first full-length studio effort. By this time, Karen had grown into her vocal range and mastered live staying power (with the live show outshining any studio recording, simply due to its evocative, gut-wrenching presence when unleashed without the ‘producer/self-critic’ being there to say, “Wait! Stop! Take two!”), but most importantly, she’d mastered the crafting of clever folk-rock with hooks that linger long after first listen.
It was at the Optimist Party stage that I first saw Karen perform (and promptly took the CD home). I was impressed by the catchy and easily related to lyrics, stories of loves lost and sought, of personal journeys and painful knowledge gathered along the way. But still, I was looking for something a bit more: I was looking for Karen to step outside of her personal sphere and tell me about the world at large as well as her personal world. Karen’s answer – and the album I affectionately dubbed the ‘Not A Pretty Girl‘ of her catalogue, in reference to Ani’s first perfect album – was Out Here At Sea, a hybrid of the folk-rock that made Optimist Party such a fun listen, with throwbacks to Planet (the title track’s moody feel and piano, more than anything) and new experiments with ethereal ambiance and computer loops. It spanned personal and political, traversing from Karen musing about the ‘fantasy come true’ to a lonely soul drifting, having pushed everyone away and yet knowing that it was all one’s own doing. I honestly didn’t think Karen could top the album; I knew she’d match it, having found a groove, if you will, but how do you surpass Desert Island Album List material?
Apparently, you do it in a little package called Meeting The Future At Full Speed.
Unlike OHAS, nothing on the first few listens seems ‘skip-able’. Does it seem contradictory to call an album genius while admitting you don’t always play it in its entirety? It really isn’t. As a whole, each song is needed to tell the story, to take you on the journey. Therein lies the genius. But sometimes a song, for whatever reason, doesn’t sit right on frequent listens; in the case of OHAS, the brooding Tell Me What I’m Doing Wrong doesn’t always spin when I have the album in the player. It may be that somehow, it feels too short; live, it almost becomes a jazzy jam piece, and I think the studio cut’s abruptness just throws the album’s flow off for my ears at times. MTFAFS, however, flows beautifully, with each song feeling like a natural progression of the one previous, building to a chilling outro on the final track, Faded Souvenirs. I’ve always felt that OP suffers from being too long, with songs I’d call B-Sides on the actual body of work, taking attention away from the gems. OHAS and MTFAFS clock in with less tracks, but are stronger for it. They’re wisely selected.
If OHAS was the brooding depressive reflecting on how disheartening life, love and the world can be, MTFAFS is the cautious optimist, looking for the silver lining that just has to be in the damn clouds overhead. Drawing on the electro-pop influence of Karen’s side project National Sound and the strongest elements of OHAS, and tossing them in a blender with delicious string arrangements, MTFAFS reaches out, tugs at your heart, and demands to be remembered. I dare anyone to walk away without at least one chorus, one verse, one melody sticking in your mind. The songs are an antidote to the frustration and fearful worldview of OHAS tracks like We’ll Find You and No One’s Watching. If OHAS left you longing for a more lighthearted Karen, yet enjoying the new gadgets and toys, MTFAFS is precisely what you were looking for.
Is there a weakness on this album? It’s slight, and it’s the nitpicker in me who’s been spoiled by far too many live sets and acoustic duo shows speaking. Karen live > Karen in studio, anyday. Her voice is incredible live. While MTFAFS does a better job of capturing ‘live’ Karen, there are songs like More Than A Sign where I play a live version alongside the studio and find the emotion carrying the moment on the bootlegs adding just that little extra something. Then again, perhaps that’s the point: why else would you come to the live show, if you could stay home in your PJs and hear the exact same thing?
Karen is a perfectionist, which is why I’ve chosen the lead-in lyric that I have. There really is no need to worry; you’ve landed firmly on your feet.
Briefly (since this has become anything BUT), a track by track…
Meeting The Future At Full Speed: Opening with the title track, the mood and intent of the album is set for our sonic stage. Karen has seen the future, and will not back down, no matter what may come her way. It’s almost an anthem for the unsure and unsteady, a rallying cry to shun the status quo and stand out, leaving fearlessly. The strings add oomph in just the right places.
Land On Your Feet: In live incarnations in the lag between albums, this song went from “pretty catchy” to “oh my God, I think I may be obsessed”. It may be that the song is speaking to my life at this very moment and where it stands, but I think it’s also pop-perfection. I’d like to see this as a single; I think it has the potential for universal appeal, both sonically and in terms of its message.
Over & Over: This is one song that has benefited from the full band and studio treatment over the more stripped live arrangements. With a catchy chorus that sticks in your head(Òver and over, you drop the ball/I don’t know what you’re running from/Over and over again/Over and over, you fantasize/But when will it materialize?/When will tomorrow begin?”), this is about the point on first listen of the album that I said, `Yeah, I can`t NOT play the whole album now, work be damned`. Its outro reminds me of National Sound-esque material, which ties well into the next two tracks…
Your Day Will Come: Live, Your Day Will Come originated in the mix of songs from the National Sound project. Karen soon reclaimed it as a solo song (as she later did with the next track, Stars In Our Eyes). It was the first optimistic piece to seep out between the heartbroken Slide and the wrenching beauty of Important, insisting that “Everyone has a choice/to lower or raise their voice/And I hope you’ll make some noise…”
Stars In Our Eyes: Stars was originally a National Sound track, and in a rather different form; the vocals were softer, more subdued, and the piece was a more driving electronic-ambient piece, with a thumping insistency to it. I loved it. This version is different; it features strings, stronger/fiercer vocals, and the ‘thumping’ is abandoned in favour of a more rock feel. It works incredibly well, but the original captured a feeling of space and the night sky for me in a way this one doesn’t. However, the emotion behind the lyrics is clearer and in the forefront on this version, which works better in the context of this album and its narrative. The contrast also makes me think: remix!!
Life Is Short Enough: Soft, more stripped than most tracks, and… happy? A happy love song? This is what Sarah McLachlan was trying to do with her track Answer on Afterglow, only Answer is boring as hell, while Life Is Short Enough is tugging on my sappy `so in love` heartstrings.
Love You Anyway: What a sharp contrast from Life Is Short Enough! Yikes. Bipolar love stories, party of one? Your table is ready. Catchy as hell from moment one, with the wry sass of Monday (from the Wish On A Star compilation) in the lead-in, it definitely tugs on the heart… Differently. These two tracks nearly form two sides of a coin; I could almost see it as being an answer to the sentiment of the other. I suppose it brings the mood down a tad in this order, but in terms of flow, it’s necessary as a lead-in to the end of the disc.
Can’t Fail Anymore: This is an example of where Karen has managed to capture her live voice on a disc, especially towards the end. The song reminds me of New Year’s resolutions: we start off so well-intentioned and talk a great game… and then, reality sets in, and we realize just how hard our 50 changes are.
More Than A Sign: I think this track is suffering the same problem as Stars In Our Eyes: I’m so used to the solo piano version from live recordings, I don’t quite know what to make of a full band version. The strings are incredibly satisfying, accenting the parts of the song that chill me, but somehow, I think the loudness of the band detracts from the verses. It’s still an amazing song as presented here, and one of the strongest lyrically that Karen’s done, but I need to forget live versions and keep listening to this to fully embrace it. It may also be that the album, on the whole, has very few ‘slow’ pieces, and perhaps this one could have been one of the few? In any case, it makes for a powerful transition to the finale.
Faded Souvenirs: I love this as the closer for the disc, because for me, it is a mirror to the title track of Out Here At Sea, which closes that album. In Out Here At Sea, Karen sings, “Say that you don’t care/Pretend you don’t/That’s all they have to know/You asked for this, you hypocrite/Let go…”, it ends the album on a very melancholy moment, one that asks if we can rise above mental prisons of our own creation, and if so, how do we let go? Can we? As Faded Souvenirs builds to its outro (which caught me so completely off-guard that my jaw dropped, my fingers stopped typing, and a chill crept over me), Karen tells us in emphatic fashion, “And by letting go, I finally realized…”. Thematically, Faded Souvenirs deals with our memories and baggage that often weigh us down, hold us back, and keep us from our dreams and from seeing that even when every door seems to shut, there are more doors to find. One of the best uses of strings on the album, I would love to strap down the Juno Awards Committee and force them to listen until they named it Song Of The Year. Love & Bandaids has always been my favourite song of Karen’s, but this and More Than A Sign are giving it a hell of a run for its money.
Meeting The Future At Full Speed will have its official release on CD on March 29th. For now, it’s available as a digital download via Dropcard purchase at shows. Karen’s official site is here; her MySpace is here.