Kate Ellis - Spirals
Having been quiet for some time, Kate Ellis spent the back end of 2021 pepperng us with a batch of excellent singles that set the expectations high for the release of her second album "Spirals". The singles which magnificently front load this album were as brilliant as they were different. the one thing that they did herald was that this album was going to be bigger than than its predecessor, with a wider range of instrumentation and with Kate taking on a wider spectrum of subjects
The cover shows Kate strikingly standing proud like the figurehead of a ship in front a cliff face, while the inside cover shows her walking in the sea, the water beautifully bathed in sunshine and Kate being the epicentre around which everything ripples out. The back cover seems to catch her in a manic delight her hair flailing about as she shakes her head wildly.
The opening track "Can't Not" is a useful sound stepping stone from "Carve Me Out", the opening acoustic guitar could easily have nestled on that album, however as the sound opens out to include CJ HIllman's guitar and with the arrival of strings, her whole musical palette seems to be much bigger. The lyrical opening is in some ways ominous and threatening
"Dark skies - the crow flies
Never too far away
The lights gone and the wrong song
Playing over again"
The ( I "Can't Not" Love You) to give the songs title it's full context, finds the thought as impossible as making
"the wild winds blow" or "the seasons slow" even though the relationship is all but over leaving the narrator hopelessly trapped.
The frustration is palpably visible
"Say you never see my eyes - tell me that you never break down and cry
Show me when you find the way, to put all this away, and call it a day!"
However it is met with "You tell you're happy and I could be happy too" and so the status quo remains.
"Blackbirds & Rye" pays a nod soundwise to the Emerald Isle, the fiddle and exceptionally inventive brush percussion naturally evoking those feelings the moment that you hear them. Lyrically the song is a message to Kate's daughter, and is one that a lot of parents must be facing now. although the song predates the current global issues, the fears and concerns addressed are the same only greater, the world has probably never seemed a scarier place.
The message Kate passes is almost one of tough love, there will be times when things don't right and there will be many Mr Wrongs before finding a Mr Right but each of those wrong turns will make you who you will eventually become.
There's a slight almost imperceptible acceptance in the delivery of the next couple of lines of one who has been there and has the scars.
"Build a world and the cracks show up everywhere
Fall in love and you find out they never cared
How much worse if you gave up and never dared to love"
Musically it is uplifting and reassuring, perfectly accompanying the sentiments of the song summed up in the later lines
"You will have your day to shine
Trust me now, It's too hard to live when really you're just scared to die."
On this record Kate undoubtedly has had time for self analysis and she ponders not only on her own place in the world but on those around her and indeed on the world itself. Whereas "Bluebirds & Rye" looks at the next generation, "Another Way" finds Kate looking backwards, loosely looking at her fathers story and the effects his life had on her. It really is writing on another level. pushing the limits of what can be squeezed into a four minute tune.It spans generations and examines how your childhood can reflect on how you will be as a parent and if its more than just blood that gets passed down the family line.
The lyrics open with Kate's father in his infancy, and it is quite unflinching
"The little boy he was loved but not quite good enough" where "his father touch was a little rough". It is undoubtedly a a hard upbringing which Kate is able to evoke brilliantly saying a lot within remarkably few words
"Fathers angry words playing on repeat, he never looked to deep inside for fear of what he'd see
and as soon as he'd get home he'd want to run away".
The years pass, though the enduring emotional damage remains, perfectly encapsulated by the lines
"He keeps his Southern whiskey and his bitterness on ice
and he railed at the injustice every day"
It follows through his life into his relationships where although finding someone who loves him for what he is, he still considers himself to be "poorly made"
Each verse inextricably leads us back to the title of the song reinforcing the point much as it did on "Ones You Love The Most" on the previous album, while the chorus sees Kate sympathising with but not wanting to perpetuate his issues.
"I don't want to see, everything you see, even though your darkness stays a little piece of me
But now I know why you'd always turn away - despite trying every day, you couldn't see another way"
This song comes with a much more pronounced keyboard sound, both piano and organ and there is a lovely string section that joins half way through while the backing vocals throughout add a certain smoothness to the proceedings
"Wonderland" finds Kate pleading for the world and her depth of feeling and frustration is obvious from the opening lines
"My hearts aching
Every inch of me is shaking
To see the beauty that we are breaking
Those opening lines come with the gentlest of backing, a mandolin, some guitar and keyboards giving no hint of the explosion of sound that awaits it - "Wonderland" builds a marvelous anthemic soundscape that just explodes around your ears. Kate paints a grim vision of "Fields turned to dust", "we're all going up in smoke" and tries to highlight that this planet we live on is a "Wonderland". Undoubtedly as stirring a tune as Kate has ever fronted - each time as it builds to the chorus it has the purposeful swagger and power akin to Dylan on "Like a Rolling Stone", it is that emotional a connection that it makes.
In a complete change Kate Ellis blows away all preconceptions of how she might sound with the barn storming "Scars". This is an all out rocker that barely pauses to catch breath throughout its 3 minute duration. The clicking drum sticks that count the intro, go on to providing a thumping backbeat only matched by the rawkus guitar playing of CJ Hillman that is decidely up front and in your face. Despite the song being from a female perspective, it was actually penned by Andy Hobsbawm unleashing his feminine side. Billed at a recent live show as a "dysfunctional love song hopefully not autobiographical" it follows the trials and tribulations of a couple who have a distinctly turbulent relationship. Kate sets the scene immediately, fronting this rocking riot with the same consumate ease that she possesses when singing her more delicate tunes
"I hate the way your fingers brush the hair from my face
When you're feeling nervous, things seem out of place
I hate the way you kiss me - since you ask
With your alligator skin and your crocodile heart"
The chorus comes with some delicious high backing vocals that are suitably over the top and therefore perfectly match the mood of mayhem.
"I got blood on my hands from emotional demands - I got Scars"
Kate also manages to pull off one of the most trickiest things known in recorded music - a spoken section that is not only not awkward it actually succeeds in spelling out the ridiculous volatility of this relationship
"Heaven knows no rage like love to hatred turned
But after four bourbons 3 scotch's, 2 shots and a chaser
I was ready to forgive him again" and so the cycle resumes.
It is all perfectly summed in the closing couplet after which the band sound as it they are ready to collapse in a collective heap
"I know you're keeping score but I come back for more
I guess this must be love cos we can't get enough - I got Scars"
The mood again changes for "Wolf" it's guitar and percussion opening played out over a blowing gale in the background,
"She looks out through her glass as the happy people pass and she will never know
The secret to their lives, where everything seems right, is it just a roll of dice?"
In later lines we find out that is a younger Kate, her legs "hanging from the sill" and there are fairy tale allusions as she ponders "Why can't I see, the "Wolf" in front of me, until I'm caught inside his mouth"
It hints at being scared and the strange irony that you can never feel safe until you've been truly scared which leads Kate to ponder
"What would I do without the devil I knew?"
If "Scars" was a rocking knock on our expectations then "Other Side of The Street" sees Kate challenge them again as she takes on her most upbeat jaunty tune to date. A quick examination of the lyrics though finds that they are a direct couterpoint to the tune and much more downbeat
"He had heavenly eyes and they took me by surprise
Instantly fell, under his spell, took me to heaven and left me in hell"
The happy sounding chorus reveals itself to be quite the opposite
"He's on the other side of the street - walking away now"
After mentioning that the album was frontloaded with singles, don't for a second think that the quality then tails off, if anything the final section, like the denoument of novel is arguably the strongest section of this album which could easily have the words "No Fillers Here" stamped across it - such is the strength in depth.
The title track "Spirals" grabs you from the off with its strangeness, the words sung to just a piano and an acoustic guitar are just a prelude for what is to come
"I've been walking for a while - I've been walking mile and mile and while
my thinking spirals and spirals, still I keep on walking"
The arrival of the playful percussion in an odd time signature only adds to the feeling of confusion that Kate is alluding to in the song, no beat or word is quite what you expect or where you expect it. With strings making an equally unsettling appearance half way through - this is a case of word and music working together perfectly.
Kate's ability to see things around her is unparalelled and her observation of time passing that is the "I Am The Tree" is magnificent, The tree in question is her family tree and gradually, in the normal scheme of things you rise from the bottom and then in the blinking of an eye find yourself at the top.
The mix between real and family tree's is nicely blurred in the opening lines that hauntingly hint at what is to come.
"Winter's calling and the leaves begin to change - they're falling down around my feet like children as they play another game
Winter's calling and my arms begin to shake shadows getting longer as generations fade away - Here I stay"
Musically and lyrically this is sharp brilliant faultless songwriting that stops you in you in your tracks, makes you rewind and bathe in its brilliance once more.
The realisation "That's how it's meant to be - I am the tree", so simple yet so profound makes for a moving image.
Closing with "The Story You've Been Told" Kate ties up a lot of themes that have permeated through the record, being trapped by who you think you are or worse by who others think you are.
"Now only you can know but have you thought of simply letting go".
Kate closes with a message of hope and reassurance that tries to cut through a lifetime of conditioning
"I don't know what you can see - everything you are looks beautiful to me
I see you heart, I see your soul and that's all I need to know"
With "Spirals" Kate has not only equalled the success of "Carve Me Out", she has almost certainly surpassed it and if takes as many years before we hear the next one then we can sit safe in the knowledge that it will arrive when Kate is ready for us to hear it and not before.!