In Brief: Katie has done it again! I expected a return to more acoustic music after the colorful sonic adventures of The Waking Sleep, but instead she’s upped the ante with her most electronic – and perhaps her most compellingly human – album to date.
Let’s just get something straight before I start to dig into the actual contents of the new Katie Herzig album. It’s right there staring you in the face, and it’ll become the elephant in the room if I don’t at least mention it, so… I HATE THE COVER PHOTO. There, I said it. I’m sorry, Katie. I love the music on this album, and that’s far more important than whatever imagery you may choose to market your music or to say “This is my quirky personality!” in big bold lettering when some unsuspecting listener stumbles across it on the Internet. The cover of Apple Tree was cartoonish and slightly whimsical. That fit the album perfectly. The Waking Sleep was more pensive, like an innocent, disheveled moment when you had just woken up from a nap or something, and that was a great fit, too. But this is just… yikes. What is the deal with the polka dot dress? Are you trying to fade into the blank white background as if you were emerging through a wall or something? Because I see those black spots all over and the first thing that honestly comes to mind is “Cruella De Vil”. And then you just sort of have this blank stare, maybe gritting your teeth slightly, like “Ugh, let’s get this photoshoot over with, I’ve got a record to finish!” I’m generally not one to play fashion police, but this just isn’t flattering or representative of the fantastic album within. OK, that’s out of my system now. On to the music!
The world of indie pop has brought me a few nice surprises in 2014, but none have consumed me quite so much as the 12 songs on Walk Through Walls. When I first became acquainted with Katie’s music in 2008, I though of it as whimsical, poppy folk music, the kind that went down incredibly well in a coffeehouse setting with just enough respectful silence between songs for the artist’s self-deprecating jabs at her own love life (or lack thereof) to be warmly appreciated by the crowd. The Waking Sleep found her expanding her pallete a bit, bringing in more percussion (she played the drums in her former band Newcomers Home, after all) and a bit more programming, and bolder pop hooks in general, couched comfortably in between some of the curiously pretty quieter moments on the album. It was a weird balance, the sort of thing I figured might be a one-off experiment before she returned to “her roots”, whatever that’s supposed to mean anyway, on her next album. I loved that record for all of its quirks – it really brightened late 2011 and early 2012 for me (which were otherwise very dark times), and it even proved to be influential on my very favorite songwriter of all time, Vienna Teng, who borrowed producer Cason Cooley to make her own colorful electro-pop statement on last year’s Aims. See, Katie? You’re moving up in the world!
Cooley is back in the saddle with Herzig on Walk Through Walls, and this time they’ve managed to accomplish the seeming paradox of making her sound even more electronic and yet less upbeat. Don’t get me wrong – this is still a fantastic pop record, one that brims over with the childlike joy of discovering what happens when you merge the skeletal structures of a few programmed beats and synths with more spontaneous bits of playing around on live instruments in the studio. There are definitely a few singles in the waiting that could go toe-to-toe with “Free My Mind” or “Hologram” for a slot on that list of songs that you just can’t get out of your head. But this album’s real heart lies in its softer, more mid-tempo moments, when what could have been mere cold machinery instead gives way to heartwarming empathy and occasionally a bit of soul-straining sorrow. This is Katie’s most human record so far, which isn’t to say that her songs lacked depth before, but here you can really feel that she’s lost someone she loved and that she’s learned more about what makes the human heart tick in the process. I don’t hear anything resembling an acoustic guitar in most of these songs, but thanks to Katie’s gift for crafting compelling melodies and thoughtfully-phrased rhymes, I don’t miss her “old sound” at all. (Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t be massively intrigued to hear this one get the “acoustic trio” treatment… but that’s a thought for another day.)
Slow and sneaky is the name of the game on this opening track – it’s minimalist enough to keep you guessing, but it’s surprisingly easy to get caught up in its careful, tip-toeing forward motion. bare-bones bass and percussion meet up with a stream of blurry synth notes that keep stopping and starting, and Katie is almost whispering the lyrics at first, appealing to the self-preserving nature that keeps the heart from taking risks: “‘And if you let it grow, then you know for sure/That it could hurt you more/But you’ve been hurt before/By all of the stuff that never happened.” The vampy chorus brings in some group vocals, almost sounding like a taunt, but really just compelling us to remember that no pain equals no gain. It’s one of the few times I’m willing to let a songwriter get away with the old “Follow your heart” sentiment, because what follows is a reminder that you might get hurt, but from that hurt you will gain wisdom and strength in the long run: “‘Til it’s easy, ’til it’s open/Long enough to feel a little bit broken/’Til heaven has spoken.”
The album’s most addictive song (yes yes, I hear you groaning) fits quite well into Katie’s tradition of writing pseudo-love songs that are sort of obsessive and sort of self-sabotaging (see “Hologram” and “Hey Na Na” for more details), but in a playful, self-deprecating sort of way. As the piano pounds and one of her best and bounciest melodies gets fired up, she gets all hung up on a guy who gave her a taste of something good and then apparently vanished into thin air, leaving her wanting like some sort of a deranged junkie. This sort of subject matter could sound icky if the songwriter didn’t have enough of a fun-loving personality to keep things on the playful side – we know she can’t be that co-dependent, but I’m sure most of us recall what is was like at some point to not be able to get someone out of our heads, even when we knew they weren’t so good for us. The song’s more about capturing that deliriously sorta-happy and sorta-desperate mode moreso than it is about digging into details, and it’s the sonic construction of it that really grabs me, with Katie leaning heavily on the Auto-tune for the chorus and a wordless refrain that has all the gloss of synthpop and yet all the texture of sandpaper at the same time. It’s like she discovered her inner St. Vincent for a second there (though St. Vincent would be making those odd sounds with a guitar instead of a keyboard, I suppose). And I can see some people finding that refrain annoying or overbearing, but I’m fully under her spell at this point, and it also helps that the song knows how to set its mood, say what it needs to say, and then come to a definitive halt before any of this gets too repetitive for its own good.
3. Walk Through Walls
The wispy synth undercurrent of “Frequencies” seems to lay the groundwork for this song as well, though it’s more of a steady, soothing stream compared to that song’s more robotic motions. A relaxed tempo and minimal percussion are once again the rule, though this gives the keyboards, bass and some other colorful sounds more room to play in the margins. The result is a peaceful, contemplative song that might have worked a little better later in the album, but that still intrigues me because I can’t quite figure out what the “walking through walls” she describes is all about. Katie is asking us what substance there is our blind assumptions and un-tested beliefs about a world we’re afraid to go out and explore: “How do you know the world is round/When you’re blissfully enchanted on the ground?/How do you see a world outside/When you’re surrounded by a picture in your mind?” A lot of songwriters would be content to shrug their shoulders at such questions and guess that all will become clear to us in some future incarnation of our existence and/or the afterlife, or take the cynical view that those answers will never be revealed. Katie’s take is a little more optimistic: “Before you walk through walls, you will leave all this behind.” Whether that’s out ignorance or our need to even care about these unanswered questions is up for debate, but she seems determined that her and now in our current mortal state, we will transcend these things somehow.
Nostalgia for young love burns bright and long in this simple, but incredibly effective, ode to simpler days. It doesn’t hurt at all that she hits you with a bright melody right out of the gate – I can’t quite place whether it’s coming from a stringed instrument or an electronic sample, but for some reason this song hits me right in my happy place by finding a delicate balance between the programmed and the organic. The beat thumps and claps along, there’s tons of reverb, and it just feels like the song could echo off into an endless sunset. As she pleads “Don’t let go of me… Don’t give up on me…”, you can sense that perfect moment of elation threatening to slip away from her, and it’s as if composing this song was the perfect way to capture that moment in amber so that it could be admired again and again years later. Fans of “Lost and Found” from the last album will no doubt appreciate this one – its chorus has a similar lilt to it, but it’s just a shade more bittersweet.
5. Say It Out Loud
The album’s most fast-paced song seems designed for a crowd sing-along, once again using the stop-start mechanism to great effect as group vocals stutter out a refrain of nothing but “Oh! Oh-oh-oh!” and so forth.I’m not exactly sure what Katie’s got to declare so loudly and proudly here, but the song becomes an unstoppable freight train of busy and giddy synthpop sounds, perfect for those moments when you’re feeling audacious enough to be “Holding a loaded gun/Pointing it at the sun/Not fooling anyone.” Unless you just intrinsically hate music that seems too bouncy or overtly feminine, I can’t see how this one could not put a smile on your face.
6. Your Side
The first half of the album closes out with a mid-tempo song that does an excellent job of mixing the bright, sunny pop sounds Katie’s enjoyed playing with so much on this record, with the moodier and more introspective tendencies that make it so refreshingly relatable. There’s a moment here where a synth hook that starts off sounding like it game straight from an 8-bit video game melts into a piano playing the exact same melody, and it’s a neat little window into what I’m assuming was more of an organic songwriting process that gradually gave way to the mutated pop sound somewhere in between. While I could do without the squishy mouth sounds that seem to comprise part of the song’s rhythm track (at times it sounds like someone doing that old “elbow farting” trick we all got tired of in grade school), the song turns out to be far more compelling than you’d expect given its odd construction. She pleads for the end of a conflict and the ability to see her adversary’s side of the story with the sort of warm, wise compassion you might expect from a U2 song: “We can’t hide from each other/We can hide from no one/Give our hearts to each other/Lift them up like we’re young.”
Sometimes I get a weird sixth sense when I look at the title of a song, as if I can tell it’s going to be awkwardly written. Katie’s generally a good enough songwriter that I don’t usually have this problem with her, but I had that weird premonition about this song. While I can’t say it’s a bad song (its melody is far too sweet for that, and there’s a lot of interesting keyboard stuff and vocal sampling happening here), I knew I was in for a bit of a rough ride when the song opened with these, um, lines: “I don’t wanna hurt you/I just wanna be your friend/Even though we draw our lines/With very different ends.” Oof. That’s a cliched generality followed by a hackneyed metaphor for different people with different lives doing different things and clashing with one another due to their different-ness. Might be acceptable during coffeehouse open mic night, but Katie, you’re better than that! The chorus, pretty as it is, gives us the painful rhyme of “We make mistakes” with “Do what it takes”, and at this point I’m kind of checking out on the lyrics. There’s a lovely little string breakdown in the middle of the song to distract me, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that Katie can do wonderful things when she decides to let a string section take over one of her songs (see “Closest I Get” for her most triumphant example of this). It’s enough to rescue this one from the scrap heap, I suppose.
8. Thick as Thieves
A co-write with fellow Ten Out of Tenn-er Butterfly Boucher leads to another lovely, laid-back synth ballad – at times you can hear Butterfly’s deeper tones chiming in on background vocals, and together the two ladies have composed a disarming melody to build that captivating little song around. “Do you feel heaven?” is just a great question to start a song off with, and the result is an incredibly intimate (though not specifically sexual) love song, which might be more down-tempo and more subdued than “Summer”, but which is equally adept at capturing precious moments in still mental snapshots before they vanish into the ether. As Katie croons “My love, hold me to your side/My love, just like the first time”, there’s almost a maternal air to it, as if she’s rocking a child to sleep on the front porch of a house somewhere deep in a flowering valley… or perhaps she was that child and is now recalling a lullaby that’s been lying dormant in the folds of her brain for all of these years.
9. Human Too
Katie’s leaning pretty heavily on the pleas for tolerance and understanding at this point… it would run the risk of being repetitive if she wasn’t so darn winsome about it. A chopped-up vocal sample gives us another great melodic hook to sink our teeth into, and in the midst of a mostly sleepy/melancholy back half of the record, this one stands out as the lone upbeat pop song (though not the only up-tempo one… I’ll get to that soon). You might fear from the title that she’s going to spend this song stating the obvious, pointing out that people are people and so let’s focus on the stuff we have in common… and yeah, that’s exactly it. I won’t beat around the bush when she isn’t. The approach might seem a little Pollyanna-ish, and at times she’s even guilty of contriving a rhyme for its own sake (“All the magic and all the tragic lives inside of you” – um, ouch?) But there’s a bit about forgiving strangers that sticks with me: “Forgive them their fortunes/Forgiven them their pain”. I guess it’s a reminder that we can sometimes resent or fear not only people who have more than us, but people who have far less, as if they’ve somehow done something wrong by bringing their uncomfortable stories into our presence. I’ve heard more eloquent pleas for compassion, but this song manages to work due to its sheer determination and the bang-up production job that Herzig and Cooley have done, giving it a thick, danceable groove that is tough to resist.
10. Water Fear
One of the album’s most unusual songs is perhaps its least concerned with presenting an obvious hook to the listener, and which instead floats along on a bed of tense, plucked strings, as if headed inexorably downstream towards an eventual plummet over a massive waterfall. Like “Frequencies”, it’s a slowly creeping, almost whispered song, though this one makes no bones about facing down fear and admitting that it might be a bit harder to handle up close than it is when you’re writing fun anthems about being brave when you’re standing at a distance from those roaring rapids. Much of this album was composed with the specter of Katie’s deceased mother in mind – the record is dedicated to her, and you can tell from many of its songs that she’s trying to remember moments of closeness with dear old mom, while also grappling with conflicts that were left unresolved. This seems like one of the conflict songs, grappling with the ghost of issues her death left behind, the imprint of that relationship on her self-esteem and her identity. Like a child who never quite learned to swim and now fears drowning even in the shallowest and safest of swimming pools, I get the sense as this song winds its way toward uneasy finish, doing little to break the tension as verse moves to chorus and then back again almost without the shift being noticeable, that Katie really wanted to capture one of those “fight or flight” moments when you know you’ll never be able to live with yourself if you don’t at least try to wrestle those old fears to the ground… but boy, is it tempting to just curl up into a ball and play possum instead.
The most surprising song on the album is well-paired with “Water Fear”, starting off as a desolate landscape full of mourning, Katie’s weary words ringing out against the cold night air with nothing but vague, synthetic ambiance behind her: “I ask forgiveness… I ask forgiveness… I ask forgiveness, for our last goodbye.” Suddenly she lets out this piercing wail, and we’re about as far from the bouncy, girly synthpop sound as I could ever imagine she might have gone, just plunged into the depths of the anguish left by these unresolved mother/daughter issues. And then suddenly, what could have been five minutes of pure despair becomes one of the album’s most grippingly strange concoctions, as a dark, bubbling beat begins to well up behind her, and before you know it, the song coalesces into a percolating dance track, as if the song had somehow morphed into its own remix halfway through. It’s one of those surprises that I almost hate to ruin for you, but man, do I love this song. It’s the perfect catharsis for pretty much any situation in which you’re wracked with guilt over something and frustrated by the lack of closure. And even if you didn’t feel any of that yourself, you could just stand back and be blown away by the powerful performance, by how all of the electronic bells and whistles and the echoing funhouse of sounds can’t at all diminish the raw emotion in Katie’s voice. This is one that I’d recommend listening to even if Katie’s usual playful pop sound isn’t your style. It’s the sort of song that seems to open up entire new worlds of possibility for her as an artist.
The final song feels like a bit of a postscript, given the stunning conclusion of “Forgiveness”. It’s meant to be a quiet meditation, a chance to ponder a simple question: “We should ask ourselves out loud/Are we really proud?/Are we living with our hearts in the open?” As a pensive string section and soothing background vocals coo alongside her, she makes her best attempt to bring the moral of the story out of the personal moments of fear and anguish that she’s laid bare. Beats and hooks and most of the fancy electronic stuff take a backseat to still ambiance here, bring a sense of peace to the album as it closes on the repeated and somewhat open-ended sentiment, “You couldn’t look away.” Whatever regrets Katie may have to live with, whatever lovers she may have let slip away, whatever words she can never unsay to folks no longer around to reply to them, at least she can say this with confidence: She faced her fears honestly and learned how not to flinch.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Walk Through Walls $1
Say It Out Loud $2
Your Side $1.50
Thick as Thieves $1.25
Human Too $1.25
Water Fear $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: