In Brief: The emphasis on rhythm and vocal layering helps Kina’s original songs to match the attention to detail that she puts into her viral videos. While this one still gets a bit sleepy toward the end, I feel like her songwriting has evolved enough to keep me interested once the initial novelty of her cute innocent persona and the “Hey, she covered some of my favorite indie bands!” effect have worn off.
Even though I appreciate the role that YouTube and social media play in modern taste-making, I often feel like kind of an old fuddy-duddy who doesn’t fully “get” how someone can become a celebrity based on these outlets alone. Sure, I’ve wasted many an hour on YouTube, but usually that’s because I’m looking up live performances or music videos by existing favorite bands (in between the guilty pleasure of old Whose Line Is It Anyway? clips, of course), not because I’m poking around for something new and exciting to watch. I only just subscribed to a few YouTube channels earlier this year – even when I see some viral video that I like, it’s usually not the kind of thing where I want to see everything else that musician or actor or comedy troupe has done, necessarily. So I’m always a bit baffled to find that an artist can built up a formidable following this way, and that I can not know who the heck they are until years after the fact.
Case in point: Kina Grannis, a charming young singer/songwriter who has made quite a name for herself on the Internet, mostly due to her charming “acoustic sensitive” covers of pretty much everyone from Simon & Garfunkel to Beyonce. I hadn’t heard of her until my wife, who excels at finding the cutesiest things that can possibly exist on the Internet, posted Kina’s “In Your Arms” video on my Facebook wall as a way of wishing me a happy V-Day last year. I was impressed with the painstaking work that had gone into its Jelly Belly-filled stop-motion animation. I looked her up and quickly discovered that she’d done a few covers of bands like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, and suddenly I had to go listen to ALL THE THINGS. She seemed to have a gift for looping and layering her own voice with little more than an acoustic guitar to back her up, and for keeping the mood decidedly light and innocent. Also, while it has no bearing on the music itself, I’m always happy to see Asian-Americans (she’s half-Japanese) making it in the music business. So I had plenty of reasons to cheer for Kina. But I didn’t find that her label debut, Stairwells, really had a lot going for it in terms of repeat listenability. It was a refreshingly un-cluttered record, just letting her do her thing without any obvious outside influence trying to overproduce her simple sound or manufacture a personality for her that felt unnatural in any way. I admired that, but beyond the few catchy singles and the delicious cover songs buried at the back of that album’s special edition, I got kind of bored with her default sound. It worked every now and then for light-hearted and sorta romantic background music, but it didn’t really reward active listening that well.
My first glimpse of her follow-up album, Elements, was not a promising one. I feel stupid and superficial for saying it now, but… She chopped off all of her long black hair! AAAARGH! Why do women do this?! That’s the sort of thing that should also have no bearing on the music, but I’ve seen enough mainstream starlets do this to know that it often signifies an attempt to tell me they’re more grown-up and rebelling against something or other. It generally doesn’t bode well for the music, since that tends to end up taking a back seat to the whole “proving you’re not a kid any more” thing. As it turns out, I had nothing to fear, as she’s managed to freshen up her sound and hone her songwriting skills a great deal on this record, without any of it making shocking swerves just for the sake of remaining a trending topic or something. Elements is just as genuine as its predecessor, despite being a little more sophisticated. The image makeover was probably just a personal thing – a change in the seasons of her life not intended to denote a totally different personality that she was going to try to sell us on this album. I really shouldn’t fear such things, but sometimes I’m irrational like that.
What jumps out at me immediately in the first several tracks of Elements is the percussion. Without completely dominating her sound, she’s found herself at home amidst some addictive, organic rhythm tracks that could well have been constructed from the simple sounds of stomping and clapping and thumping on the body of a guitar. Little electronic elements and the occasional electric guitar creep in, but she never confuses making a pretty pop song with making a generic one, so the record’s focus remains decidedly acoustic and intimate despite the extra layers of production. The energy heard in those first few songs doesn’t quite last throughout the album, but there are a few surprises here and there that remind me she’s trying to think out of the box instead of going with the same basic “teenager playing four chords in her bedroom singing her diary entries” type stuff. There might be a few dull entries, and one genuine head-scratcher, later in the album, but overall it’s a significant improvement over her old stuff. And for the first time, she doesn’t seem to be leaning on covers to draw attention to her original material, as this album contains absolutely none of them. (She’s still posting those to YouTube, of course, but I have no idea whether any of them will show up on a physical release in the future.)
Lyrically, I’m not ready to say she’s plumbed the depths of profound poetry or anything here, but there’s a loose theme of nature and how its various elements represent the moods and seasons of her life. Familial relationships are also a recurring motif here, with several songs devoted to relatives or to people she feels close enough to that she considers them family. When the expected cutesy love songs do show up, they actually seem to have an undercurrent of tragedy despite how wide-eyed and optimistic her personality can come across. Kina actually got married not long before the release of this album, but you wouldn’t know it, judging from several songs that appear to be about letting go of a doomed relationship and other personal failings. She actually does better with this stuff when she’s not too specific about it, which is not to say that she writes totally generic songs or that I think she should – it’s just that there are a few moments where things get just specific enough that I wonder if it was wise to reveal certain things. Shrouding a personal struggle in the metaphor of seasons changing or a fearsome force of nature just seems to suit her better. That makes the bulk of Elements a refreshing listen, a light and colorful record that isn’t too overbearing or too indulgent or too light or too dark. It probably won’t turn as many heads as, say, recording the world’s umpteenth cover of “Happy”, but it shows the sort of long-term career potential that I don’t think can come from an amusing link getting passed around on Facebook – because hey, it’s only a matter of time before the “viral” appeal fails you due to fickle people deciding they found someone’s cat more amusing.
1. Dear River
I’m in love from pretty much the first note of this song’s refrain, as Kina’s layered voice comes wafting in like a light summer breeze. Then the percussion comes in – and I want to describe it as “tribal”, which seems a bit of a cliche, but if you watch the music video, it’s actually sort of a fitting description. I love how there are so many layers here, and yet her voice and acoustic guitar rise so beautifully above the din, making it the perfect soundtrack for a trip along a winding forest road as she sings of a raging river whose great lengths and depths she cannot grasp, and whose sheer speed she cannot keep up with. I’ve heard this sort of thing used as a metaphor for God to think that this song could have religious connotations, but even if I’m reading something into the song that isn’t there and the song is simply about a beautiful and powerful force of nature, that’s compelling enough in its own right. I took a trip to Yellowstone National Park not long after first hearing this one, and the song fits perfectly with the stunning visual of Lower Yellowstone Falls, with the wide torrent of water dropping into a colorful canyon where we meager humans are tempted to say to Mother Nature, “Okay, now you’re just showing off.”
2. The Fire
I wouldn’t really describe Kina’s music as “rock” most of the time… “folk/rock” fits, I suppose, but usually even her most up-tempo material isn’t on the more aggressive side of that equation. This one hints at it, with its acoustic rhythm guitar used just as much for percussion as it is for melody, and the song carefully building into a controlled burn, with little bits of electric guitar grumbling about here and there as she tried to head off a conflict with a man who knows a thing or two about how certain words can ignite a powderkeg of hurt and angry feelings. “You let the fire out, and it’s right in front of me”, she sings in her most angelic voice, and yet it’s sort of passive/aggressive, like a warning that continuing to play with this fire is going to get them both burned. The song leans on repetition a bit more than it should, which means Kina can’t go into a whole lot of depth on the subject. But it’s a sturdy and well-built song, setting those breathtaking vocal melodies alight on top of the raw kindling of the mostly acoustic and deliberately simplistic instrumentation.
3. My Dear
OK, so this is the big, cutesy love song on the album. You’d normally expect such a thing to be either a power ballad or a quiet, intimate sort of song with very sparse instrumentation. Kina takes it in the opposite direction, basing the song around a fast, syncopated guitar strum and and one of the most fun percussion tracks on the entire album. Much like “Dear River”, the song is soaked in sweet vocal ambiance, and this is one of the few moments where you can hear a bit of electronic influence, as little chopped-up bits of her voice are sprinkled in, popping up like little flowers all over the place. The lyrics read like wedding vows, discussing all the little traits and quirks of her lover that she wants to hold on to forever, and I suppose that’s fitting, considering that the music video for this song is entirely made up of footage from her wedding. It’s one of the sweetest things I’ve seen, but it’s upbeat and celebratory… and that’s totally the kind of outdoorsy, not-too-formal California wedding that I’d be honored to attend if a friend with those sensibilities were to get married.
I can only hope that the songs as presented on this album do not represent Kina’s life journey in chronological order. Because coming right after such a joyous wedding song, this song of heartbreak is especially devastating. On the surface, it’s quite pretty, with the rich acoustics and the swaying rhythm immediately drawing me in. But it’s got one of Kina’s most vulnerable lyrics, as she compares herself to a tree, having shed all its leaves in the waning days of autumn, “waiting for love like it’s water”. This one was clearly written about a relationship that took way too long to finally sputter out and die, as she’s pleading for the guy to either show some sign of genuine affection or just call it quits already. Even though you can almost sense the tears spilling onto the page as she pleads “Tell me it’s over now”, that little glimpse of unstoppable optimism still shines through, as she consoles herself: “We made it all these years/And no they were not wasted/No life was lost right here/If love is what we tasted.”
5. Oh Father
With a similar “cautiously up-tempo” vibe to that of “The Fire”, it’s easy to imagine Kina alone under a spotlight in an otherwise dark room, strumming her guitar like it’s her only lifeline to the heavens. (There’s slight support from the backing band here, but they’re smart to leave the atmosphere stripped down so that the raw, confessional tone of the song isn’t comrpomised.) Once again I’m getting that “Could be religious, could be literal” sort of vibe as she seeks counsel and guidance for various troubles that she can see along the road ahead. “All along, I have been trying to hear you in me”, she croons in the chorus. “All along, you will be the one that I’ll become.” Her unwavering faith in her father’s provision comes clear as the bridge melts into the final chorus, with both of Kina’s vocal parts intertwining quite nicely: “I never wanted anything apart from what you’ve given me.”
6. Little Worrier
Whether the past song was a prayer or just a heartfelt talk in her father’s den after dinner, she’s smartly positioned this one as a reply, an attempt to assuage her own fears by putting her father’s advice into the format of a sweetly finger-picked ballad. It’s one of those performances where the acoustic guitar is crisp and clear, you can hear the strings squeaking as her fingers glide across them, and you can imagine you’re right there in a room with her playing and no other distractions, aside from the fact that there are ghostly copies of her voice echoing her lead vocal at times. She’s asking the classic question that’s been posed by sources ranging from the Bible and just about any piece of self-help literature you can get your hands on, asking whether worrying about the future will actually change it, or add any value to the remaining days you’ve got left to live. The song is a reminder to just live in the moment and let tomorrow’s problems get dealt with tomorrow, and it’s almost flawlessly written except for one distracting lyric: “Please don’t let your tears run dry.” It comes right at the end of the chorus, meaning it’s the final thought that she lands on, and I know that she means to not cry so much that you physically run out of tears to cry, but it comes across as if she were saying to keep those tears flowing. It’s one of a few places on this record where a slight change in phrasing could make a world of difference between a song with good intentions and a truly great song.
7. Throw It Away
I warned you to be prepared for a significant drop in the energy level in the back half of this album… arguably, that drop may have happened as early as “Winter”, but that song was so darn beautiful, and there’s such a stark yet driving energy to both “Oh Father” and this song that I don’t really notice it until “Little Worrier” and this track show up back to back. This one’s actually got kind of a jangly rhythm to it, so you could consider it one of the album’s more up-tempo songs, but the drums stick to a distant rumble and the only other strong element of rhythm to it is a few handclaps that show up during the chorus. At times it has the sort of lightly chugging pace of an old country song, which is a tough thing to explain… suffice to say, it’s not a straightforward pop song or ballad. Kina’s tackling the subject of a broken relationship again, though here she’s offering some solace to a guy whose girl seems to have unceremoniously dumped him. He’s clinging to a specter of a lover that she knows he’ll never get back, and she’s getting a little impatient with the whole process, knowing that remaining in that state of denial’s gonna hold him back from truly getting healed. So she encourages him to make a clean break. “Take your heart and break it now/You’re the one who makes it count/You don’t want this anyhow.” The chorus is sung entirely in falsetto, definitely an odd choice for a song that’s supposed to motivate a guy to get on with his life already, but I like the unorthodox approach. It’s just so darn pretty, how could I not like it?
8. Forever Blue
Here’s where the album starts to sag a bit, due to a few ballads that don’t seem to advance Kina’s sound beyond what we heard on Stairwells, and also due to some odd lyrical choices that she makes. Some sort of a traumatic event from her childhood is recounted here, one that made her wonder at the time if she would ever get over it. It seems to be a death in the family, especially since she wonders in the second verse, “Why can I not keep her here for good”. But the chorus introduces a bit of gender confusion as she tries to explain a little more about her grief: “And it broke my heart when I felt the truth/My father has a father, too.” So did her grandfather die? Or her grandmother? Or someone else? It’s clearly a very personal song, but the way it’s phrased in the chorus makes it sound like she’s pointing out the obvious. (Well duh, Kina. Everybody’s father has a father.) The instrumentation picks up a bit during the bridge, which lets a little sunlight in due to the brief fanfare of acoustic sympathy, but for the most part, the song doesn’t really stand out to me for any good reasons.
Quite maddeningly, the one notably upbeat song in the back half of the album is, hands down, one of the worst things she’s ever written. I really hate to be so hard on this one, because it’s meant to be a happy love song that’s all about how two lovers came together despite some unfortunate circumstances. It goes from happy-go-lucky acoustic guitar ballad to the big, delightful chorus melody with these huge drums, and I’d want to root for it if I heard this with some other lyric accompanying it. But the song is apparently all about her guy’s ex-girlfriend. That in and of itself is not a bad thing – I can remember Relient K coming up with a sort of witty song about owing a current relationship to an ex taking a girl for granted. But here, I don’t think she intends to be sarcastic or at all passive-aggressive, and yet that’s how the song comes across, due to how it starts off recounting how they all used to be the best of friends, how the girl used to take her guy out dancing and stuff, and then some non-specific circumstance changed everything. Kina strikes me as too nice of a girl to horn in on some other dude’s relationship, so I can only imagine this was one of those rom-com sorts of situations where two people who were “just friends” started falling for each other despite the upheaval it would cause in their supposedly picture-perfect lives. (If they can’t all still be friends, then there are clearly some unresolved issues there. Unless Maryanne died or something, in which case the song misses a huge opportunity by not explaining that.) The end result of it all is that I just sort of feel sorry for Maryanne, whoever she is. It’s never made clear that she did anything to deserve losing the guy in the first place. A bit of poor enunciation makes it hard to tell that Maryanne is being addressed in the third person, not the second, as she sings “Maryanne, understands, that you were the one for me.” if you miss that “s” and you just hear “understand”, as I did at first, it sounds like she’s telling Maryanne to understand that she is the one for her. And I’m well past the point where I’d feel weird listening to a gay love song… but this is not that at all, and it’s incredibly awkward that it’ll probably get mistaken for one by folks who aren’t listening closely.
10. Write It in the Sky
From here to the end, it’s all mellow stuff, so I’ll admit to not playing as close attention to these deep album cuts the first few times through. This would be the more down-tempo, intimate, “love you ’til the day that I die” sort of romantic ballad that you might have expected earlier if you read the lyrics to “My Dear” without hearing the music. It’s cute. once again, I enjoy that the acoustic finger-picking is left mostly unadorned by production gimmicks – just some light piano and self-made backing vocals. I don’t think this one will immediately jump out at anyone, but it’s pleasant enough, and I appreciate the vulnerability of describing a quiet moment (perhaps a proposal, or at the very least a reconciliation after a fight had broken them up) in which two lovers realize they’re so happy together that it brings tears to their eyes.
11. My Own
The album’s shortest song, running about two and a half minutes, is one of those tracks that needs to be musically simplistic to make sure its lyrics hit home. So no accompaniment here other than the acoustic guitar and backing vocals (which I keep assuming are Kina multi-tracking herself, but her sisters have been known to back her up at times, and there would be no more appropriate song for it than this one). My reaction to this one was a bit ho-hum at first, and once again it’s because of a not-so-well-enunciated lyric causing me to miss the entire point. What I initially heard was her thanking family members for all the times they’ve given her advice, shelter, a shoulder to cry on, a place that feels like home. A nice little sentimental thought, but nothing out of the ordinary. The last verse didn’t make sense to me: “You were my brother/Even though I had none.” Is the thanking her husband or some other guy who simply feels like family even though he’s not related? Then I looked at the lyric sheet. Each of these verses is preceded by an “If” that seems to get mushed into the word “You” at the beginning of each line, so that it ends up sounding like “Few were my father”, “Few were my mother”, etc., when it’s really saying “If you were…” (fill in family member here). The song isn’t about family members at all. It’s about how people can make a difference by caring for others as though they were family. Or something like that. It still isn’t amazingly profound, but that one little “If” did increase my appreciation for the song.
12. This Far
The album ends on a little lullaby that, strangely enough, is picked out on an electric guitar. Not a whole lot of other accompaniment here except for a little bit of glockenspiel and some disembodied humming in the background. It’s a quiet moment following a series of increasingly quieter moments, and I’ve always felt that you have to ramp down the energy level carefully if you’re going to end on something like this… suddenly segueing into it from something really aggressive doesn’t work, but too much mellow leading up to it causes people to tune out. So yeah, I’ve kind of tuned this one out a lot. (Kind of like I did with much of Stairwells.) There’s nothing wrong with it when you take it in a vacuum. It’s a song that acknowledges ongoing pain and heartbreak, refusing to wrap up the troubling situations she’s mulled over on parts of this album all get wrapped up nice and neatly just because the record is over. Still, she lets that stubborn glass-half-full philosophy get a word in edgewise: “It’s hard to see a happy ending/When you don’t see how you can mend things/But life is long and forgiving/And it goes on and on and on.” Whatever’s left unsaid, whatever wounds have yet to be stitched up, she can’t ignore that stuff, but she ends the record with a hint of faith that the healing will one day come.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Dear River $2
The Fire $1.75
My Dear $2
Oh Father $1.25
Little Worrier $1
Throw It Away $1.25
Forever Blue $.50
Write It in the Sky $.75
My Own $.75
This Far $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: