In Brief: A near-perfect pop album that overflows with infectious personality. One of the best of 2011.
I’ve probably said this before, but Katie Herzig strikes me as the musical equivalent of Where’s Waldo? Maybe it’s just the Nashville circuit that happens to produce a lot of my favorite bands, but I feel like her name crops up unexpectedly when I hear an enticing duet or background vocal on a pop or rock song and think, “Gee, I wonder who that is?” To date, I’ve encountered her golden warble on songs by Sanctus Real, Jars of Clay, Paper Route, and Sleeping at Last, and caught her on tour with Vienna Teng by sheer blind luck. I figure that’s a good gateway drug to get a person to check out Katie’s music, but her gift for strong melodies and playful, insightful songwriting is what ought to keep them hooked. That’s how it went for me on her 2008 album Apple Tree, and I’m pleased to report that the long awaited follow-up, The Waking Sleep, rises above the already high bar that Katie had previously set for herself.
The great thing about The Waking Sleep is that while it isn’t a shocking swerve in terms of its chosen musical style (Katie’s always had a fondness for cutesy acoustic pop songs with some degree of sonic embellishment), it’s a dramatic leap forward in that it demonstrates Katie’s fondness for lush arrangements. As bouncy and radio-friendly as so many of her melodies are, this disc takes it into “baroque pop” territory on several occasions, still stopping to let the quiet charm of a girl and her acoustic guitar shine through on several cuts, but also offering some of her most layered and rewarding arrangements as swelling strings and other “organic” instruments mix with modern “indie pop” production. These same songs could have been drowned in beats and synths in the hands of a more mainstream producer, but here, producer Cason Cooley (a name I recognize from my brief fandom of The Normals) helps her apply textures as they fit the song, meaning some of them are big, cheery, danceable parties full of colorful sounds, while others are stark, confessional, and only as ornate as the lyrical poetry dictates they need to be. This mostly a logical progression from Apple Tree, with big surefire singles like “Hologram” sitting alongside more intimate reflections that might recall “I Hurt Too” or “Wish You Well”. The album leans a little more towards the former, which for some might make The Waking Sleep a tad too cluttered, but for me it’s just the right balance of sound, a big catchy parade of fun-loving yet intelligent pop songs with the right sense of timing in terms of when to throw in a breather.
Katie’s primary lyrical focus hasn’t changed much, though it seems to be getting steadily more refined as she gets more songwriting experience under her belt. Apple Tree had its fair share of forlorn, “Is this why I’m still single?”-type musings, and Sleep has its fair share of those, too, baring the songwriter’s soul in the most winsome ways as she either details her plans for making some special fellow take notice, or finds herself suspended in the tension of not knowing what to do next when his response is either yes or no. Songs of encouragement to her fellow members of the fairer sex and a few musings on spirituality round out the setlist, and through it all there’s this sense that you’re being told the grown-up version of a warm, familiar children’s story, which has its monsters to fight off and its moments of heartbreak to overcome, but that ends cradled comfortably in happy ever after. Understandably most of the fanbase who really gets into this stuff will skew towards the female, but as a speaking as a guy who loves the more intelligent side of sensitive songwriting, her knack for knowing the right thing to say keeps me hanging on her words at pretty much all times. I kind of see her as a kindred spirit – just one who happens to have a gorgeous voice and a gift for pop hooks that a fair number of TV shows, commercials, and fellow artists can’t wait to get their hands on.
1. Free My Mind
The first track is a fun workout, tiny electronic beats colliding with live drums and strings and a breezy melody that goes from childlike whisper to strangehold chorus hook with little warning. The overall pace of it reminds me from “Hologram”, but unlike the sad lament that hid behind that song’s playful veneer, this one’s all about the fight to stay upbeat. I’m a worrier and one of those people who spends a little too much time wondering what others think of me and how I measure up, so I figure this song is a nice little gift-wrapped reminder from Katie to folks with a similar mindset. It’s all about controlling those inner demons, telling them they have no place, making up one’s mind and taking the risk. It’s exactly the kind of smartly concocted pop song that signals upfront to new listeners that Katie means business and intends to have a blast in the process, and by the time this song’s synths and strings come back for a final victory lap, she’s got her virtual audience in her pocket with one of her all-time best tunes.
2. Make a Noise
The second track is admittedly a slight speed bump – still peppy with its ramshackle rhythm made of various plucking and clapping and stomping sounds, but a bit sparse in terms of lyrics and melody. Katie’s urging someone on the brisk of discovering their true identity or calling in life to just rip off the mask and sing it out loud and proud. This doesn’t come across quite as effectively as it should because the song itself seems to have a small, meek voice. In terms of the vocals, what could be rich, full notes are instead stilted and spaced out, even in the chorus – “Find… your… voice… make a noise.” It’s still a gifted enough arrangement, what with the strings and background vocals and stuff weaving in and out, that I have to admire the level of effort that went into it. But it seems sort of stuck between reflective ballad and pop song, and coming this early in the track list, it’s the one song that I’m not quite sure what to make of.
3. Way to the Future
The album’s most adorable song – and probably the catchiest thing Katie’s ever written (which is saying a lot, believe me) comes riding in on galloping percussion and a quick, furious cello sawing out a triple meter. 6/8 is perhaps the most playful time signature, at least when you speed it up enough, and Katie uses this to great effect, essentially wooing a mystery man from afar. It might not be obvious at first that the “she” in this song is actually the songwriter, but she paints a picture of this woman as a sort of muse – “She digs the words out of the sky, she leaves them there for you to find”. Hey, I remember what it was like to be single, trying to work out my longings through my fledgling songwriting skills, wondering if one day my gift with words would help me win over that special someone. That seems to be what Katie’s musing about here, hoping that out of the potential audience out there bobbing their heads to a song like this, there’s that one guy whose reaction to it, will be nothing less than, “You read my mind. Marry me!” The hook here is just so icredibly captivating, strings zig-zagging every which way and piano ringing out above the din and Katie’s vocals beckoning “You want to love, well now’s your chance.” We could be looking at my favorite pop song of the year, right here.
4. Best Day of Your Life
The overall structure and melody of this one remind me of the cutesy “How the West Was Won” from Apple Tree. This one definitely ups the ante a bit, with what sounds like a banjo plucking away as part of the bouncy framework that really makes the song resonate. She’s almost structured it like a children’s song, with the melody almost teasing a potential playmate – “I’m gonna race you to the fence”, “I’m gonna case you ’round the block”, etc. This doesn’t read as flirtatious the way the previous song did; rather it seems like more of a friendly push to a person unwilling to take risks. “Don’t mind leaving your nest/Don’t mind making a mess/This could be the best day of your life”, she croons in the chorus. The rhymes are so simple and the structure repetitive and easy to remember, and in that way it sort of begs at memories of things that were fearful in childhood, but seem like no big deal now that we know how they turned out – like the first day at a new school or something. Katie’s definitely in “glass half full” mode, and the array of musicians helping her out do quite a bit to sell the unbridled optimism, even to a cynic like yours truly.
5. Wasting Time
The record takes a bit of a melancholy turn here, focusing on a missed connection that happened when boy met girl, girl looked pretty appealing to boy, but girl wasn’t into boy and just wanted to be friends, not construing any of this as leading him on. The simple verse that opens this song speaks volumes in only three lines: “I didn’t know when I met you I’d upset you/I didn’t know I was taking both your eyes/Even the best intentions take us by surprise.” She wraps these observations around a simple ukulele melody, which gets amped up over time with insistent cello and loud, clacking percussion, but it’s a still coffeehouse confessional type of song at its core. The sad truth of being too nice to say no and getting dragged half-heartedly into a relationship has never been summed up so succinctly: “It’s easier wasting time than breaking hearts you love.”
6. Midnight Serenade
The over-driven peppiness that fuels songs like “Way to the Future” also has a dark side. You might miss it from the nearly hyperactive combination of sounds fueling this hysterical little song, which finds Katie (or at least, the protagonist of the story she’s telling) on the hypotenuse side of a good old-fashioned love triangle. She’s caught herself being less of a muse and more of a siren, drawing this man’s attention away by cover of night, and the song almost plays as her attempt to look at things objectively, asking him to “Close your eyes, think of what you have beside you/Even I understand the reasons why you’ll stay.” Just when the song reaches its manic, noisy climax (a synthesizer solo, of all things), it quite abruptly shuts down, as if the affair is in danger of getting found out and she now has to tiptoe out of the room. “I sing so you might hear these words”, she pines softly, “But sadly, so might she.” It might be easy to miss that last verse if she hadn’t drastically scaled back the music to draw attention to it. At first the sudden change of pace bugged me a bit, but now I see the mad genius behind the awkward moment.
7. Oh My Darlin’
Katie had a few songs floating around in the ether between Apple Tree and this album that I wasn’t sure would ever find an official home on an album (most notably the vampy single “Hey Na Na”), but this one seems to be the only survivor that actually fit the flow of The Waking Sleep. It’s more of a folksy, quiet song, though still brisk-paced and more than a bit playful. It’s hard to go wrong with songs about how childhood was simple and how we had it all figured out back then, and that’s essentially what Katie’s doing with this rambling walk down memory lane, notes from her acoustic guitar spilling out like a babbling brook pouring over small stones. Strings and other small embellishments are present, but for the most part the arrangement is similar to the one heard on Katie’s Live in Studio – Acoustic Trio album in 2009. The more intimate setting of the song fit that format well, so it was probably best to not throw too many effects at it here. Katie’s longing to reconnect with a childhood friend is charming, though her attempts to be “folksy” with her grammar kind of bug me in the chorus: “Oh my darlin’, oh my dear/Times is hard without you here.” Who knows, maybe that’s just how they talk in Nashville. (Or in Colorado, where Katie is actually originally from.)
8. Closest I Get
The album’s quietest song by a long shot is one that I didn’t think I’d like at first. It’s almost like a tinny music box being cranked slowly and unevenly, Katie’s words pausing to keep in time with its rusty motion. It turns out that the meekness of this song is where it finds its charm, as Katie is hanging on a deciding moment in a fledgling relationship, preoccupied with “what ifs” and afraid to make a move in case it might tip the balance unfavorably. Something about that longing melody kept nagging me in much the same way that Apple Tree‘s “Gypsy Girl” did until I realized it had swiped a melodic snippet from “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Listen closely when the strings come in, to the cello in particular, and you’ll realize they’re teasing around the melody to Pachelbel’s Canon. You know, that song that you hear during the processional at almost every wedding, the one that probably triggers that nagging question of “Will this ever happen to me?” in folks who are still single and wanting this to not be the case. So the first half of the song plays out like a tentative commitment that two people are afraid to make, until it reaches the tipping point at the end of the third verse – “What if the closest I get to the moment is now?” That’s when Katie just goes for it. There are no lyrics after this point to indicate that something beautiful has happened, just the sudden, joyous outpouring of the string section as it morphs a familiar chord progression into a fluttering, happy-tear-jerking ode to newly minted romance. It’s one of the album’s most brilliant moments.
9. The Waking Sleep
The title track is also quite subdued, relying more on ambiance than hook value, which at this stage in the album is more appropriate, demonstrating that slamming pop hooks aren’t the only way for Katie to get her point across (even if it is an effective one). This one sort of drifted by me the first few times due to its sleepy haze – there’s a fingerpicked melody on Katie’s acoustic to tie it all together rhythmically, but an electric guitar provides a bit of melodic haze rather than a conventional lead melody, and any other elements of the song are deliberately faded into the background. Katie’s words are hushed but drawn out, playing like a quiet prayer for a hurting friend. She’s not sure how much of the pain to feel on this person’s behalf, or when to shut it off, so the song feels like a bit of a conflict between genuine compassion and not getting in too deep.
10. Lost and Found
If you’ve heard a chirpy snippet of melody coming from your TV recently while the film We Bought a Zoo was being advertised, then that was this song. It’s one of those cases where a catchy chorus doesn’t tell the entire story, though, since this is a song that thoughtfully builds up to that moment of pop perfection. Strangely enough, the gentle, breathy verse that leads up to it reminds me a bit of Michelle Tumes – it’s hidden in some of Katie’s vocal inflections, though I doubt it’s intentional. The lyrics find Katie wavering between faith and doubt, grappling with the supernatural a bit more than she has in a lot of her other songs. “I know you left me standing there/Out of the calm of the coldest air/I don’t believe the words you said/But I can’t find the words I want”, goes the first verse. The song ties in nicely with the album’s theme when she pines in a later verse, “One day I will see heaven’s reach/I’ll find the one who left me sleeping”, but the song maintains a delicate balance, as if to say she lives in uncertainty about the things she cannot see in the presence, but seems to believe deeper down that this will all work itself out. This paradoxical state, “I am lost and found” seems to play out in terms of things she’s been saved from thus far that she’s thankful for, and things she still longs to see or believe that she’s apprehensive about. I see it as sort of a modern indie pop spin on U2‘s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, though I dread the unfair expectations that making such a comparison will probably cause you to place on this song.
11. Daisies and Pews
I don’t know why, but this is the sort of song title that I’d expect from Sara Groves. That’s not at all a bad thing, as Katie takes a similar approach of finding God in the churchy things and the earthy things alike, though her personal expression of the faith that lies betwen these things is more abstract and open-ended. These last few songs have stuck to a spiritual theme, leaving behind the musings about romance or at least relegating them to more of a mystical purpose – she does, after all, find herself returning to the simple phrase “Knowing and waiting, we are in love”. The melody here is disjoint, stopping and starting without as well-defined of a rhythm as you might expect, with Katie’s soft, almost detached humming to tie together the various phrases that seem to have come to her in a dream. Like the title track, the ambiance is beautiful here, with warm, ethereal guitar tones above the trickling acoustics, and even a French horn. The soft keyboard notes that mimic Katie’s humming almost give it the feeling of a lullaby during the song’s instrumental coda – it becomes more diffuse as it goes, as if waiting for the listener to drift off into a peaceful state of sleep, hoping that maybe some of the mystery will make more sense on the other side.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Free My Mind $2
Make a Noise $.50
Way to the Future $2
Best Day of Your Life $1.50
Wasting Time $1.50
Midnight Serenade $1
Oh My Darlin’ $1
Closest I Get $1.50
The Waking Sleep $1
Lost and Found $1.50
Daisies and Pews $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.