Artist: Katie Herzig
Album: Moment of Bliss
In Brief: Another strong entry from Katie that deftly balances immediate, hook-driven, fun-loving pop singles with more intricate and unusual arrangements on some of the deep cuts. It’s not quite the home run that her previous two albums were, but it’s pretty darn close, and her message of self-determination and pride in one’s identity feels like it’s needed more now than ever.
Katie Herzig is one of those artists who hits a sweet spot for me. On the surface, the music she makes is very poppy, usually pretty optimistic, and often downright catchy. Yet she’s one of those singer/songwriters whose ability to craft a song is strong enough that the message of a song, or for that matter its very reason for existing, doesn’t seem to get buried beneath the style of a song, even when that chosen style involves a lot of bells and whistles in the production department. Often, I find that artists who grab my attention right away with big, catchy pop singles have trouble sustaining that sound for an entire album – either everything ends up sounding the same and it’s short on substance, or attempts to diversify the sound can make the overall style vary wildly from track to track, to the point where the album doesn’t hang together as well. But Katie always seems to strike a darn good balance between the strength of her individual songs and the way they all fit together as a full listening experience. When I first got into her music ten years ago, on her third solo album Apple Tree, I’d have classified her more as a folk/pop artist, with occasional bits of keyboards and programming, but she’s definitely moved more and more in that direction on the records she’s put together since then. Working with producer Cason Cooley, Katie put out incredibly strong records in 2011 and 2014 that, were I to make a list of all-time favorite “perfect pop albums”, would definitely be contenders – first The Waking Sleep, and then Walk Through Walls. The latter was my favorite album of 2014, and whenever I go back to it, it pretty much serves as the soundtrack to my spring and summer of that year, since I was listening to it constantly and its songs are strongly tied to a lot of memories from back then. She’s back in the saddle once again with Cooley for her sixth album, Moment of Bliss, which since it came out almost exactly four years after Walk Through Walls, has had a longer gestation period than any of her albums so far. It’s the first time for as long as I’ve been listening to her that I feel like she hasn’t made a massive push forward sound-wise, but she’s settled so comfortably into her preferred blend of high-octane electropop and quirkier ballads/deep cuts that occasionally have more of an indie pop or even baroque pop flair to them, that I can’t really complain.
Now I suspect that in an age where streaming has overtaken digital downloads, which themselves vastly outnumber physical album sales, I may be one of the few people who gets a little concerned when an artist takes so long in between albums that numerous singles are trickling out in the meantime and there’s no clear indication of an endgame at first. Attention spans are short nowadays, and releasing frequent singles just plain gets an artist more buzz in the social media sphere than the traditional album release cycle does. Unless you’re one of those very special artists with enough of a hardcore following to do the whole “surprise release” thing with no promotion whatsoever and turn the surprise itself into a media sensation, singles appear to be the way to go, even when you’re not the type of artist who has much of a hope that mainstream radio will pay you any attention. I’m willing to bet that more of you have heard Katie Herzig’s music before than you realize, but if so, it wasn’t on the radio – it was likely in a commercial, or a film’s soundtrack, or maybe she cropped up as a guest vocalist on a track by some other artist you like (this was initially how I got into her, after all). Her music is pretty addictive once you make the point to go seek it out, but I guess continually creating opportunities for “drive-by listens” that don’t necessarily require a smash hit single to get people’s attention is her preferred method of winning over new fans, and I can’t say there’s anything wrong with that. It was just weird for me to get “I Want to Make You Proud” as a standalone single well over a year ago, and be impressed by that one but then kind of forget about it after the first few YouTube views, and then not know an actual album was in the works until late last year. By the time Moment of Bliss finally came out, 6 of its 11 songs had been posted to Spotify, so I’d already heard over half of the album already. In recent years, I’ve tried to avoid listening to singles before an album dropped, just due to past disappointments with good singles that ended up sounding nothing like the album (or that didn’t even end up on the album because by the time the artist finally got it done, they had veered off in a completely different direction creatively), but this year I’ve decided to be open-minded and listen to whatever the artist makes available ahead of time. That made Moment of Bliss somewhat anti-climactic, since I already knew most of its front half as well as how the album would end by that point, but it had the interesting side effect of focusing my attention more on the deep cuts that would likely never become singles. I had already found the most obvious, hook-laden favorites and now I could focus in on the material that would normally take me a bit longer to get into. That’s not a terrible thing, is it?
Regardless of the release strategy, I’d say that Moment of Bliss hangs together as a pop album almost as well as its two predecessors. I recognized pretty much right away that Katie was making a special effort to celebrate individuality and to speak to hurting souls whose need to express themselves had led them to be shunned by others in a few of these songs. I could tell from the video for “I Want to Make You Proud”, which was actually a montage of scenes from the Women’s March when Katie participated in January of 2017, that the stakes were a bit higher in terms of defending an individual’s right to express themselves and not be silenced, than they were when Katie put out her last few records. A personal note attached to the release of “Weight Lifting”, the final single before the full album came out, confirmed part of the reason why this mattered to Katie so much, as she made it known to her fanbase that she had been involved in a relationship with fellow singer/songwriter (and frequent Ten Out of Tenn collaborator) Butterfly Boucher for many years now. I wouldn’t say this is an explicitly political album, nor is it an overt “coming out” statement, even if that stuff’s all there between the lines. These new songs are more about the exhilaration of finding personal freedom, and not caring who tries to tell you that you’re not doing things the way they think you should be doing them. There’s a sense of joy to this record that has long been echoed in Katie’s music, but against the backdrop of #TheResistance, it feels more cathartic this time around. I listen to this record, and I find myself super happy for her, even if I wouldn’t necessarily have gleaned a lot of specifics about her political views or personal life just from listening to the lyrics alone. She seems to have written these songs from a place of being in love and super-stoked about it, but also wanting to express compassion for those whose realities might not be quite so happy nowadays. I’d still say that her last two albums were stronger, in the sense that they ran more of an emotional gamut – you’re not going to hear anything quite as intimately and breathtakingly arranged as “Closest I Get” or as heart-wrenching as “Forgiveness” this time around. But the biggest and brashest pop songs stand up quite well alongside tracks like “Hologram” and “Free My Mind”, while some of the less immediate, but still beautifully composed, side journeys in between those singles are easily as refreshing as past tracks like “Summer” or “Lost and Found”. This is album #3 of her exploring more or less the same sound, and since it still yields a treasure trove of strong material, I can’t really blame her for not fixing what wasn’t broken.
I think it’s interesting how each of Katie’s last three albums had a very different strategy about what sort of song to open on. “Free My Mind” was a big, catchy single on The Waking Sleep. “Frequencies” was more of a mellow, ambient mood-setter on Walk Through Walls, pretty much designed to throw the listener for a loop in a good way. This track is on the mellower side as well, but on first listen, it felt to me like more of a straightforward, mid-tempo pop song in comparison – not the type that jumps out at you right away, but the type that very slowly settles in with a light groove and a gentle melody. I’d feel like I’d been dropped right into the middle of the record, were I not already familiar with this track before it even came out. Since it was one of the first Katie wrote for the album, I figure it made sense to her to put it first on the album, and while it might not be representative of the album’s sound, it’s a good enough intro to what this record seems like it’s trying to communicate. I mentioned earlier how Katie’s partner-in-more-than-just-a-musical-sense Butterfly Boucher had collaborated with Katie on a few songs in the past, and she makes a very subtle appearance on backing vocals here, helping to cement the lyrical idea of two people who initially don’t know each other discovering that they have a lot of the same moods and hopes and fears. Musically, the song seems to be gradually moving out of the shadows into a brighter, happier place, which echoes the lyrics as they open with admissions of doubt and not knowing how to feel, but eventually arrive at the declaration “It’s hard to make it until we tear it all down”. This simple line is the bridge of the song, but it also repeats over the final chorus, which is a trick that Katie uses a few times on this album, and I think it’s a good one for a pop songwriter to employ, because why let a good bridge melody go to waste? While I think there are stronger tracks to be found later in the album, I have to say that I discover a little something more about how uniquely this song is textured and how it deserves more credit than I had initially given it.
2. Beat of Your Own
Every one of Katie’s records seems to have at least a few tracks on the more radio-friendly side of things (or at least, friendly to the type of radio station I imagine in my head that doesn’t revolve around repetitive club beats trying to numb the listener into submission), that might just seem like bug, dumb fun at first, but that do have something meaningful to say when you look beyond the catchy choruses. To convince me that it was more than just a throwaway, this track had to overcome a few obstacles, the biggest one being that the song gets its title from the idiom “march to the beat of your own drummer”, but the actual lyrics never complete the thought. You’ve just gotta march to the beat of your own… something. (I guess “March to your own beat” just didn’t roll of the tongue as well?) There’s also a hackneyed shelf/self rhyme in the second verse – I feel like I’ve gotta point those out whenever I see them because the word “shelf” is almost always a sign of a songwriter wanting to use the word “self” and getting painted into a corner, and I know Katie’s better than that, and I think the rest of the song demonstrates that despite this little gaffe. The lyrics are more than just a celebration of quirky individualism here – I feel like she’s singing to someone whose identity has been suppressed by others, and they feel compelled to speak up about who they really are but at the same time intimidated by the thought of it, so she’s addressing that desire for self-expression that they know can’t stay bottled up forever: “And if it’s not now/Then when’s the time?/There’s only so long you can pay no mind/To the burn inside.” It’s a pretty strong set up that leads into a chorus that admittedly seems a bit empty at first, mostly relying on repeating the song’s title and stretching out a lot of melodic “Oh-oh-oh”s by way of electronic manipulation. It’s catchy as hell, but what really interests me is how she segues from this very electronic pop soundscape into what initially sounds like a clumsily tacked-on bridge, where the song seems to trip over itself as she asks “Why are we holding poses?/The beauty is in the motion/We should be dancing in the open”. I didn’t like this section at first, until I realized how well that self-conscious change of pace reflected the conflict being described in the song, between being a conformist afraid to step out of line and being a true individual who might attract gasps and stares and protests when finally overcoming that fear. The bridge melody ends up slotting perfectly into that open, wordless space left by the first few choruses, making it feel much more fully realized when the chorus comes back around for a few more laps at the end.
3. Feel Alive
It took a few spins for me to realize it, but this track is the first true home run on the record. Perhaps I initially had reservations because it felt to similar to some of the mid-tempo tracks on Walk Through Walls that aimed for that sweet spot between upbeat, synth-heavy pop, and more of an intimate, comforting lyrical approach. This is where the comparison to tracks like “Summer” really comes into play, because that was such a beautiful moment on Walk Through Walls, and this one appeared to exist in its shadow at first. I’ve come to realize how meticulously Katie and Cason worked together to give this track its own unique texture, from the fluttering keyboards, to the stuttering vocal samples that extend the chorus, to the more down-to-earth elements like the piano and cello. The song is catchy without overselling itself, and it comes across like a loving caress, though not necessarily in a romantic sense. the backstory to this one is that she was trying to comfort a friend whose mother had passed away, and Katie herself had been through this several years prior (it’s what several songs on Walk Through Walls were about), and wanted to reassure her friend that even though it didn’t feel like it now, things would get better and they would find a way to sort through their grief and eventually feel genuine happiness again. That’s a tricky thing, to offer comfort and perspective without purporting to solve the person’s problems for them or to tack pat answers onto complex and painful situations. All Katie has to go on here is her own experience, remembering what it felt like to wonder if she would ever climb out of her own dark chasm of grief, and perhaps wishing she’d had someone at the time to sing such a song to her. It’s a genuinely touching little moment that also works quite well on a totally superficial, “Hey, all of these little melodic bits and production touches make it super-catchy” sort of level.
4. Learn to Hide
Those first three tracks were all released months ahead of the album, so this would be the first one that was genuinely new to me upon first listening to Moment of Bliss as a complete package. I’d say it’s one of the more sonically experimental tracks on the record – it has a pretty definitive melody and rhythm that it follows all the way through, but I feel like the lead instrument playing that melody switches, from a bit of a goofy, low-end synth sound at the beginning to a piano or perhaps even a harpsichord later in the song. This should be more interesting to me than it is – I can never quite shake the feeling that the delivery is a bit robotic, musicbox-y, and honestly kind of inelegant. The lyrics also feel incomplete – she’s describing an experience of wanting to fully express herself, fall in love, all that good stuff, but then pulling back at the last minute out of fear, because she’s been conditioned for so long to hide these aspects of who she is. This is a great premise for a song that never really gets followed up on, because the chorus never really goes into detail about the consequences of hiding, preferring instead to just trail off into a series of “ooh-ooh”s. There’s no bridge, either, so by the time you make it through the second verse, which is half as long as the first, you’ve heard everything the song has to say, which honestly isn’t a whole lot. Katie’s voice is breathy and optimistic as always, and I have to admire the many sonic layers in play as always, but I can’t help but feel like this song started to make a point and then got too distracted to actually drive that point home.
5. I Don’t Mind
I’d definitely have to say that this is the album’s most experimental song. The very quiet lead-in, which lasts a minute or so, had me expecting something much more slow and somber. While I can’t quite say what that first part has to do with the rest of the track, musically, speaking, it is a nice surprise when the frantic piano melody suddenly gets dropped in, because it’s such an unusual hook. It’s in 4/4, but it seems hell-bent on making you think the song’s gonna be in an odd time signature, due to the irregular intervals at which the melody returns to the low note that anchors it. it’s a tough thing to describe on paper, but believe me when I say that it’s both exhilarating and baffling at the same time. The vocal melody’s actually pretty straightforward, and I was surprised to discover that the song was so repetitive when I actually stopped to read the lyrics. The verse repeats three or four times, as more of an ethereal break between the big, offbeat choruses that surround it, and things seem to be mixed differently each time it comes around, sometimes emphasizing the piano, strings, or acoustic guitar more than the vocals, or layering the vocals to really make them stand out, etc. Since the song’s about uncertainty, and being content with the fact that the future isn’t clear and two people don’t yet know where a relationship is going, but are content to enjoy the precious moments they currently have together, it’s a really good thematic fit for such an unpredictable arrangement. Do I wish Katie could have given me more details about the situation she’s describing, rather than just repeating herself? Sure, I guess so. But this song feels like more of a vignette, a window into a simple feeling she had that she wanted to take a snapshot of so that she could keep feeling it. So I don’t mind that, in this case, the lyrics don’t really progress, because it’s really the music doing the heavy lifting here.
6. Weight Lifting
Haha, speaking of heavy lifting! (Alright, maybe not my best segue, but I’m not the one being reviewed here.) There’s really nothing like a good old fast-paced pop song with a strong, syncopated backbeat to it. “Way to the Future” was the perfect example of this on The Waking Sleep, and this song hits a lot of those same sweet spots, though overall I’d say it isn’t as forceful about it. This isn’t actually a song about working out, after all (though it’s certainly up-tempo enough to work for that purpose) – it’s about feeling a weight lift off your shoulders when you finally take the bold step of admitting to someone that you love them, and that feeling is reciprocated. The subtext of it being the type of relationship that perhaps not everyone around them is cool with is important, even though it isn’t necessarily made explicit in the lyrics, because it took some extra courage for those feelings to be shared. Even though this isn’t the title track, I can pretty much feel the moment of bliss she’s describing as all of the protective walls and flimsy facades the two lovers had put up to avoid confronting the truth of their feelings for each other finally come crashing down. I love how it’s the verse that really gives this song its driving energy, while the chorus backs off on the percussion and lets the sweetly layered vocals take over, yet without losing any momentum. Katie’s vocal hook is downright ethereal on this one, and that’s a tricky thing to pull off in a pop song that is so rhythmic and immediate. That chorus also has my favorite set of lyrics on the entire album: “Oh, you were never mine to lose/But your heart stayed there/With your body too/No, you were never mine to win/But I kept you close, and you crept right in.” What can I say, I’m a sucker for stories about couples who were “just friends” for what seemed like an eternity until it finally dawned on them that they were actually falling in love with each other. This is, hands down, the most addictively happy song I’ve heard in 2016 thus far.
7. We Can’t Deny
Sandwiched in between two of the big singles is the best of the album’s deep cuts, which feels like it’s creating a sacred space around itself with its generous use of both acoustic and electronic elements in a way that feels like it’s tranquil and yet in constant motion at the same time. This fits in well with a chorus that would otherwise seem like it was just using vague metaphors about water flowing and wind blowing. Once again, you’ll sell this song short if the only words you pay attention to are in the chorus. Taken on their own, they could just refer to meditation or something of a metaphysical nature. But this idea that we can’t deny the things that are natural to us is given a lot more weight when the verses lay out how we live in a day and age where certain people’s basic rights – and even the very notion of truth – are being challenged. “We live in times that feel the like the tide has turned, like the truth is tainted/We live in times that tear at the fateful thread of the life un-wasted/We live in times that shape what the future holds, and the future’s yearning/We live in times that ask what our voices bring to a world that’s burning.” As I mentioned before, this isn’t an overtly political album, but if you read between the lines here, this song seems like it’s about activism, and rather than being a feisty protest song, it’s trying to paint a picture of the peaceful existence that is being threatened. I really can’t say enough good things about this one. It tickles the ears and it speaks to something deep within the soul at the very same time. Plus it’s a great set-up for the already familiar song to come.
8. I Want to Make You Proud
I’m really glad that Moment of Bliss shaped up to be the kind of album where a song that was released well over a year earlier still feels fresh and relevant in this context. As I mentioned above, this pulsating pop song took on another layer of meaning when vignettes from Katie’s participation in the Women’s March were cobbled together as a makeshift music video. Without knowing that, I’d just assume that this was a personal story about someone Katie looked up to, to whom she wanted to demonstrate that she had learned how to stand up for herself and hold fast to her beliefs in the face of darkness and doubt. In the context of the video and the album tracks leading up to it, it makes sense to me why this track needs to show up where it does despite it probably being old news for a lot of Katie’s fans at this point. The person she wants to make proud might not be a parent or a leader of some sort – it might be more of an abstract concept, like sticking up for a minority group whose voice isn’t being heard. It’s interesting to juxtapose this idea with the song “Proud”, which was the ending track on Walk Through Walls, and which was more about looking inwardly and asking if we ourselves were really proud of our own actions and could live with no regrets. This song seems to be putting those thoughts into action and making sure they have an outward effect. Musically, it’s top-notch, with its rhythm track at a low simmer initially, but then bringing in these wonderful little bursts of percussion during the chorus that once again remind us of how Katie is still a drummer at heart even though she’s spent most of a solo career behind either a guitar or a keyboard. Amusingly, the verse melody to this one reminds me of Vampire Weekend‘s “Giving Up the Gun”, though the chorus and especially the bridge take things in such a different direction that this is probably a coincidence. The bridge, which simply repeats the phrase “All I want to say”, is another one of those moments where an otherwise straightforward pop song throws a curveball, since she’s lopping off a beat to change the time signature to 7/8 for a few measures, giving the song an extra sense of urgency that really helps to drive the message home as the rhythm shifts back and forth between that and the standard 4/4 for the last minute or so. I love picking up on those clever little bits of complexity that remind us of how complexity and accessibility don’t have to be at odds with each other in the landscape of modern pop music.
9. Moment of Bliss
Interestingly, the title track was not one of the six singles released ahead of time, and even though it’s one of the most up-tempo and catchy songs on the album, I kind of like that it was left as a surprise to be heard first (for the most part, at least) by those of us who went through the album track-by-track. Instead of front-loading the album with its bounciest and most extroverted material, it makes sense to me that this little celebration of not letting a potentially life-changing moment go to waste needs to show up at this point in the narrative. Even though I wish “Learn to Hide” had a little more to say for itself, it does seem intentional that these last few songs and especially this one are referring to coming out of the shadows, to no longer hiding, to finding oneself instead of losing oneself. This song is a fun ride that actually seems a bit more guitar and bass-heavy than most of the tracks on the album. There’s still a fair amount of sunshine-y keyboards and programming, but the “live band” elements are pushed more to the forefront, making me think this’ll probably be great way to perk up her setlists when she’s on tour.
10. All This Time
“Can you see it?/Every little piece of light/Is spinning in the air tonight/Like something in the afterlife.” Now there’s an opening lyric that really pulls me into a song. I’m pleasantly surprised at how deep into the album we are and yet how she’s kept the tempo up over the last several songs. This one takes a softer approach, reminding me of “We Can’t Deny” in that it’s more of a synthesis between acoustic guitar and programmed elements, but this one’s a little faster-paced, confident that it’s running toward something of eternal worth. The central point that the lyrics seem to be making is how it feels to have discovered that an aspect of yourself you’ve spend a good amount of time running away from is actually such a part of your sense of self that when you finally start to embrace it, it feels like you’ve discovered the very meaning of life itself. Cason’s production is once again top-notch here, making great use of reverb and echo as he’s done on so much of the album, which gives songs like these a feeling of having great depth beneath a gently flowing surface.
11. Me Without You
The album’s final track – which was also released as a single right around the holiday season – sticks out like a sore thumb due to how it loses the effervescent pop production and strips everything back to a set of simple piano chords. I don’t mind a pop record putting a song like this in as a breather when it’s done well. “Closest I Get” was a great example of finding a clever way to fit a quieter song into the mix on The Waking Sleep. Here, the arrangement is more cutesy than actually clever, because Katie’s lyrics seem to give a nod to the fact that it’s a very simple and cliched thing to do, and she doesn’t really care: “I know it may sound simple; that doesn’t mean it isn’t true/I don’t know what I’d be if I was me without you.” It feels like the sort of thing you could get away with in an old jazz standard, but I’m not sure if the whole “I know it’s simplistic and I’m doing this on purpose” shtick really works in this context. The idea that she’s really come alive as a result of being in this relationship, to the point where she can’t imagine what her life would be like without it, does make a lot of thematic sense as a way to close out the album. But the metaphors she uses here are on the trite side of things, and they kind of fall apart if you take half a sec to really think about them: “Baker’s got his flour, and the farmer has his grain/Everyone’s got something to get ’em through the pain/And God has all His angels; the ocean’s got the moon.” Honestly, none of those parallels do a very good job of representing a relationship between two human beings where both of them have equal standing. The flour and grain are just tools to get a job done, and the thing the person loves in those scenarios is more the act of creating than the ingredients they’re using. God obviously has seniority over the angels, and the moon exerts gravitational force on the tide, but the ocean has no noticeable effect on the moon. I hate to dismantle this one so savagely when it was clearly a deeply personal song that Katie felt would be the perfect way to close out the album. There are some aspects of it that I like, such as the brief acoustic guitar solo that comes in during the instrumental bridge. But the song definitely doesn’t leave me with something as weighty to reflect on as “Daisies and Pews” or “Proud” did on the last two albums.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Beat of Your Own $1.25
Feel Alive $1.50
Learn to Hide $.75
I Don’t Mind $1.50
Weight Lifting $2
We Can’t Deny $1.75
I Want to Make You Proud $1.75
Moment of Bliss $1.50
All This Time $1.25
Me Without You $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: