Jennifer Kimball

"Jennifer Kimball strikes her own singular balance of hooky melodies and pop orchestration with eccentric rhythms, delicious dissonances, and off-the-chart chord moves. Her singing is gorgeous throughout, her lyrics are literate and true and her playing on acoustic guitar, baritone ukulele, and strumstick is full of surprises and amazingly sophisticated..."
   - Acoustic Guitar reviews Veering from the Wave, March '99

In popular music, styles and trends, both good and bad, generally come in waves. No one knows this as well as singer-songwriter Jennifer Kimball, who has lived through the inevitable ups and downs of literate folk-pop. As one half of the remarkable duo The Story (Elektra) she was at the forefront of female-oriented, folk-based pop-rock, one of the most promising trends heading into the 1990s and which achieved its greatest prominence during the Lilith Fair years. Kimball released her first solo album at this time, the critically acclaimed Veering from the Wave (Imaginary Road/PolyGram, 1998), and her voice became synonymous with intelligent female folk music a quarter century after Joni Mitchell broke the mold.

The release of Jennifer Kimball's second solo cd, Oh Hear Us (Epoisse, 2006) is a long-awaited gift for Kimball's dedicated fans and is sure to win her new ones. Birth, death, sorrow, joy and musical renaissance mark the eight years since Veering from the Wave was released. Setting aside solo touring for a period of time, Kimball experienced the vastness of human experience, losing her mother to cancer and becoming a mother herself. She returns with sharpened skills, a greater confidence and a stunning batch of radio and concert hall-ready songs that pick up where Veering left off.

Few singers can couch sorrow and pain in as much beauty as Kimball, whose melodic gifts are only exceeded by the clarity of her voice, the intelligence of her phrasing and the conviction with which she inhabits the characters she creates. In fact, "singing with conviction" is as apt a description as any of Kimball's vocal talent, which Billboard editor Timothy White, in describing The Story's unique harmonies, termed "an airborne metaphor for heartache." Her songs expose the influence of a childhood steeped in music from 16th century madrigals to the Beatles, Ravel to Pink Floyd, Bread to back porch family sing-a-longs, Joni Mitchell to Herb Alpert.

In the early 80s Kimball began singing with fellow Amherst college english major,  singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke. The two became the Story and set the bar high with their complex harmonies, discerning lyrics, and endearing stage presence. They made videos for VH1, toured with Jackson Browne, shared the stage with Bonnie Raitt and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and headlined the Newport Folk Festival. But in 1994 at the height of their short but successful tenure on Elektra Records, Kimball decided to call it quits. "I had to take that step off the edge - into the nothingness - to get myself out of a creative black hole." After peering into the abyss of separation and divorce - and facing the end of a long musical friendship with Brooke, Kimball began writing songs and in 1997 signed a deal with Imaginary Road/PolyGram.

Acknowledging Kimball's impressive debut as a writer and lead singer, Performing Songwriter wrote that Veering from the Wave "boasts a melodic sophistication many artists spend their entire careers trying to achieve." But after four or five years of solo touring, Kimball settled into reconnecting with the vibrant Boston music scene. She performed regularly with several Boston-based bands including Wayfaring Strangers, Family Affair, and Maybe Baby, a quartet she fronts with her husband Ry Cavanaugh; and is always in demand as a harmony singer both live and in the studio. The terrifyingly sudden loss of her mother to lung cancer in 2002 brought a sadness to Kimball's newfound role as mother herself. "Waylon was born almost two years after my mother's death. And even though I never got to share this amazing parenting trip with her, I know that somehow she is watching over me. The ache of losing her and the joy of becoming a mother have taught me what it truly means to live in the moment, musically and otherwise."

In the fall of 2003, while Kimball was pregnant, she recorded Oh Hear Us with longtime friend, band-mate and multi-instrumentalist Duke Levine (Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Story) producing. The two recorded with Paul Q. Kolderie (Radiohead, Morphine) in Kimball's home town of Cambridge, Mass. Displaying the versatility which her audience has come to expect, Kimball accompanies herself variously on her trademark cornucopia of instruments: baritone ukulele, acoustic guitar, piano and Wurlitzer. And the album features the stellar line-up of Paul Bryan (Aimee Mann, Jenifer Jackson) on bass, Jay Bellerose (Joe Henry, Paula Cole) on drums, Kevin Barry (Paula Cole, Mary Chapin Carpenter) on lap steel as well as appearances by enchanting singer/songwriters Kris Delmhorst and Merrie Amsterburg and the drummer Shawn Pelton (Shawn Colvin, Saturday Night Live Band).

From the very first bars of the first song on Oh Hear Us it is clear that Duke Levine's arrangements and guitar work beautifully compliment Kimball's songwriting. Electric guitar snakes through the opening track "Can't Climb Up," showcasing the chugging highway-rock of the album's first single. Kimball looks directly in the face of imminent death in "Last Ride Home," a tender eulogy for her mother, with hints of a New Orleans funeral march, replete with horn section, in the form of a prayer or last testament. The title of the cd is taken from the chorus of "Eternal Father," one of Kimball's favorite hymns, which she has reset to her own rootsy meditation. Oh Hear Us builds emotionally to "Lightning Bugs," a song that itself leads to a realization that those elusive flashes of evening light represent much more than the strange, distorted world view of the characters in her song. Then, as the credits would roll if this very cinematic album were indeed a movie, Kimball swings through "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," a perfectly chosen breezy yet wistful Bing Crosby number from the 1930s which the band recorded live, and featuring the devil-may-care whistling solo of Kevin Barry.

Though there is a wide variety of material on Kimball's new cd Oh Hear Us, it is anything but eclectic: the profundity of the subjects Kimball tackles and the clarity of her musical vision are what unify the work and are the hallmarks of a mature artist. From the gorgeous piano lamentation "East of Indiana" to the beguiling ukulele poly-rhythms and Cuban stylings of "Is He or Isn't He?," Jennifer Kimball's songs display the versatility and vitality too often missing from the contemporary music scene. She presents them to us with beauty, grace and gravity.

updated: 10 years ago