Kassi Valazza – Kassi Valazza Knows Nothing: Album Review

Cosmic American music, nothing more, nothing less: a tonic for tired ears to steady the soul and please the heart.

Release Date: 26th May 2023

Label: Loose/Fluff & Gravy Records

Format: CD / vinyl / digital

Sometimes it can take a listen or two to ‘get’ a record, especially of an artist previously unheard, and sometimes it slowly seeps in, as you listen, first time around, a gradual build over each successive track. And then there are those that just instantly nail it, capturing your heart and piquing interest, right from the very start. Sometimes that’s even before the singing starts. This is one of them, the mellow arrangement of the opener seizing attention and excluding all else, and you pray the vocal will match. Prayers duly answered for Valazza has a voice like a rippling cornfield, cool wind in your hair, taking no more than a quick, knowing glance to your companion: this one’s a winner!

So who the heck is she? With a voice pitched, both in style and delivery, midway between Laura Cantrell and a younger Iris DeMent, she is based in Portland, where she hooked up with her band for this album, TK & the Holy Know-Nothings. She has had a couple or so releases behind her, working with the band, Lavender County, ahead of that. Her wide plains sensibility blends well with the Know-Nothings greater sense of urban polish, the combination a pleasing mix that carries a torch for the country psychedelia of Paisley Park. A hint even of Gram Parsons’ cosmic American music, fulfilling, and some, the necessary criteria of band-oriented and singer-songwriting, inventive in each category. (Thanks to No Depression for the definition.)

As I relisten to that opening track, Room In The City, I realise it is a barely a second between the opening two notes, piano and harmonica, before she opens her mouth, still sticking to my opening statement, so consummate is that two-note intro. A beautiful tune, Valazza croons like an angel, over the soft clip-clop of drums, organ and piano playing gracefully behind, with some slow lap steel mopping up. All the while, a harmonica is blowing an evocative constancy of melancholia. Utterly glorious. Rapture starts with some finger picked guitar, before a slo-mo shimmer of backing assembles piecemeal behind her voice. A gentle sway of a song, the lyric contains enough wishful regret to give an unconscious wince: “You don’t know how fire works/It burns too slow you’ll lose it/You don’t know how fire works/It dies until you feed it“. Corners then carries a mood of You Ain’t Going Nowhere, at a slower downtempo lick, pedal steel the main sonic framing, with piano providing the rhythmic heft, and this record is showing no signs of filler. The steel is courtesy Lewi Longmire, one of the key multi-instrumentalist players in the Know-Nothings.

Watching Planes Go By picks up on another foot, reeking of a 1960’s folk-rock ambience, lyrics and all, which reference UFOs and salted galleons. With that SF organ sound and clipped guitars, Jay Cobb Anderson, on lead guitar squeezes out Kaukonen-esque lines aplenty, and it could almost be Jefferson Airplane all over. A terrific piece of recreation, it’ll have as many old heads nodding as new ones looking on in awe. Wow! Song ForA Season tears that all down in favour of a lachrymose waltz time ballad, the steel again weaving glistening trails in the sky. As brass comes in for the second half, one of the lighter songs becomes suddenly sublime. Long Way From Home picks up on that moment, and is a sepia-toned snapshot of the past. The past as played by the Band, that is, which is, I guess, still the past, if in many more ways than one. Anderson strips out some neatly economical guitar, Longmire applying lap steel carefully around him, with the effectively spare bass and drums from Sydney Nash and Tyler Thompson.

Canyon Lines carries a wryly bleak lyric, all around making the best from where there is little of anything to find: “She says the rhythm of the headlights bouncing off those concrete walls creates a light in the spaces too dark to see”. Is that optimistic or fatalistic? Mindful all these songs might all be getting to sound a bit depressing, it is up to Smile to raise the mood, another beautiful song in waltz time. Of course, there is little actual cheer, and it could easily read as a riposte to Buck Owens’ Streets Of Baltimore, written from the point of view of the bright lights seeking wife. With only the merest hint of remorse, there is still a feel of some palpable regret. Along with the opener and Watching Planes Go By, it is a standout, from the twangtastic arrangement and the bittersweet vocals. The instrumental coda with twin guitars and grungy organ is just perfect.

The last of all the self-penned songs, Welcome Song, is more delicate fare, a repetitive raga rounding around itself, a heat haze of sounds floating out from the central core. An anglocentric folk thumbprint seems present here, further testimony, perhaps, to her father’s record collection. with an instrumental wig out that is a further flashback to that era. To end, rather than one of her own, she chooses a song from Michael Hurley, Wildageeses. A gentle and largely acoustic swagger of a song, it closes the album eminently well, her voice warm and wistful, as some low fiddle saws slowly in the middle distance. Lovely.

Judging on reception and coverage, if indeed unknown ahead of this, her second full length release, she has now etched for herself a name and sound to be reckoned with. Check out Smile for confirmation:

Kassi Valazza online: website / facebook

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