Monday, July 15, 2019

album review: 'showboat honey' by kyle craft & showboat honey

I feel like I should be less surprised we already have a new Kyle Craft album.

And here's the thing: when you look at how much music Kyle Craft has put out in the past couple of years, it shouldn't be surprising, given how between Dolls Of Highland and Full Circle Nightmare he did put out a covers project, and given that he now has a full backing band called Showboat Honey, it makes sense that he'd want to have something for the general public sooner rather than later. And of course I wasn't about to complain: Kyle Craft has been one of the most startling breakout talents in the 2010s and his two albums of original material have been in my top 10 for their respective years - a huge voice, a distinctive instrumental style, and some of the best writing you'll get in rock - period.

That said, when artists start churning out projects every year, I get worried that the content and refinement might suffer, and given how potent Kyle Craft is as a writer, I genuinely wondered if he'd have enough fresh material. But apparently he and his band were working at such a pace that apparently he had an album ready even earlier, but then a quick gut check moment had him step back and record another project full of material, which from there the best songs were chosen. What was even more promising, at least to me, was the fact that Craft had apparently brought back some of the recording and production style he had back on Dolls Of Highland, my one serious nitpick from the last album, so this could well kick a lot of ass too. So alright, he's not wasting time and neither should I - what did Kyle Craft deliver with Showboat Honey?

You know, I really wish that my deep-seated concerns about projects I should have every reason to love would stop coming true. And yeah, I really hate to be the bringer of bad news with this one, but Showboat Honey is a step back for Kyle Craft, almost across the board from production to writing to even Kyle Craft's delivery. Yes, I had high expectations and yes, I was prepared for the sound to shift with the addition of more of a backing band, but what I wasn't prepared for was an admittedly good album that just pales completely in comparison with what was delivered before, especially given the heights I know Craft can reach - and what's so damn disappointing is that it seemed to come out of good and reasonable intentions too that just don't stick the landing.

And I feel we have to start with Craft himself because he's the draw here: a powerhouse singer, a huge personality, a great songwriter, he's the reason anyone is checking out this project, not his newfound band behind him. And yet you can tell he was trying to be a team player by nestling his vocals a little deeper into the mix, tacking on a few more layers of reverb and organic cushion in a deliberate callback to some of those tones on the back half of Dolls Of Highland... and at least to me, it's the wrong choice, hands down. I'm not going to ignore how Craft can be an overwhelming presence on songs, but further dampening his dramatic range and showing more emphasis to a band that plays with retro textures but are just not as dynamic or vibrant as he is is muting your greatest strengths - there isn't a song on this album that comes close to the glorious, personality-driven highlights of the past two albums, and when you have a songwriter who has a reputation for lyrical intricacy and flair, why would you intentionally muddy or bury that vocal pickup? And unfortunately Craft does not escape blame here - beyond co-producing this project, I get him stretching his range, but without more consistent multi-tracking or support or proper emphasis within the mix his falsetto just does not have the body in the same way his belting does, and it nearly always sets good songs back.

But fine, I can respect Craft trying to draw more emphasis to his band and give the instrumentals more weight and tune... so why am I left with the lingering feeling that the melodic flourishes are just not nearly as interesting this time around? Now part of this circles back to how both Dolls Of Highland and especially Full Circle Nightmare had prominent, glittery melody lines steeped in glam rock and alternative country beyond just guitars, often through horns or harmonica or blasts of keys and organ, so shifting to some darker smolder on the guitar leads with firmer grooves is a change of pace... but it also leads to a project that by necessity doesn't feel as diverse or colourful, especially with those melodies on the lead guitar fighting to get through the thicker cushion of effects and AM rock texture. And no, fellow critics, burying your strongest and most distinctive melodic elements is not a step towards maturity or complexity, it's a sign that you're not playing to your strengths or the tunes weren't strong enough to carry this project in the same way. And look, Kyle Craft has always showed his influences, but one of the reasons why those first two albums stuck out is because the songs were so dynamic, merging his influences into a strong distinctive core that could feel remarkably forward-thinking. Here with less instrumentation and colour, it becomes a lot easier to point to early 70s Rolling Stones or Elton John or T-Rex and highlight those parallels, and it leads to a project that seems to have less unique personality. And here's the exasperating thing: if I step away from those issues, I can still argue this album is mixed pretty well - the bass grooves have presence, the acoustics are clear, the piano lines are bright enough, the songs are well-balanced and there are hooks here... but I feel like the songs that went for broke on previous projects have been muted, which is strange to say when there are cuts that can bring a similar scope, like the smolder on 'Broken Mirror Pose', the plucky jangle of 'O! Lucky Hand', the sweeping, strings-accented piano ballad 'Deathwish Blue', the tight groove and sparks of garage rock guitar from '2 Ugly 4 NY', to the choppy acoustics and saloon piano that kick into 'She's Lily Riptide' that's probably the closest to any song off the previous two albums... but not one of the better cuts. And that's the most biting indictment - at his best Kyle Craft could transcend old-school AM rock, but this album would fill out that playlist and wind up getting rotated out.

But fine, what I've always praised the most coming out of Kyle Craft is the songwriting, and I'll give him this right out of the gate: if there's anyone who is allowed to take potshots at a certain critical outlet for utterly screwing up and misinterpreting him like he does on 'Broken Mirror Pose', it's Kyle Craft, and it's a great moment of catharsis. And it does make sense heading into a project that might be Kyle Craft's most blunt and direct to date, taking the whirling nightmare of complicated relationships that saturated Full Circle Nightmare and focusing on the hard juxtapositions of hitting life's peaks and valleys simultaneously. And it's hard to avoid the feeling like his language has almost purposefully narrowed its focus, where there won't be room for many miscommunications to get his message across while still painting interesting scenes... and I'll admit this is another sticking point for me. See, one of the reasons why Dolls Of Highland and Full Circle Nightmare were so brilliant is that they took the iconography and detail of old-school glam rock and fused them with modern framing and emotional nuance, which was set in the text unless you were purposefully setting out to miss the point. So a response to that where there isn't the same room for misinterpretation or ambiguity... well, it removes a level of complexity that might make sense if you were going for broader, more direct strokes, but the less direct production seems to be going in the opposite direction. That's not saying there aren't great moments: I love the post-breakup masturbation ode that is 'O! Lucky Hand', the exasperated consolation to a fellow friend bottoming out on 'Blackhole/Joyride' has some wit to it, and he's got a knack for sundering overblown arrogance like few others, from the burned out superstar on 'Buzzkill Caterwaul' to the messy infatuation post-swingers party on 'Johnny (Free & Easy)' to the over-privileged party girl that seems like she's not giving him the time of day on 'She's Lily Riptide'... except they're still fucking, she's bottoming out, and maybe that love is worth chasing. And to Craft's credit, he's not so cynical to forsake his romantic side: 'Bed Of Needles #2' is your 'love in the face of the apocalypse' song that apparently isn't an obvious love letter to heroin, and following it with the genuine sincerity of 'Deathwish Blue' is a nice touch, but between a few passing references on that track and 'Sunday Driver', it's hard not to feel like the 'they' referenced here with false accusations have left a lingering bitterness where it's not hard to draw a parallel, especially when he shouldn't have afforded them the time of day. And it's frustrating because, again, these are good songs, but instead of pulling us into Craft's stylized, amazingly detailed world, they're turning inwards, and not showcasing the flair which was so compelling.

So as a whole... look, folks, I really wanted to love this - the last two Kyle Craft albums have made my year end list, and I gave this project over a dozen listens to see if it'd really stick for me... and it just doesn't. Again, I want to stress that the core of talent is still here and there are good songs - hell, I'd argue this album is consistently good and I had high expectations. But between falsetto that hits a bum note, production that takes those vocals and places them deeper into a mix for no adequate reason to match melodies that are not as colourful or interesting, and writing that might still have some of that wit but seemed coloured by a sour bitterness that just doesn't hit - and that's not even touching on the oddly abortive song structures - I'm just left with the dispiriting feeling that this isn't as good as it should be. Admittedly, these are all harsh things where I can still stay there's enough quality to put this at a light 7/10, but for one of the most promising artists I've heard this decade, it's a misstep. If you want to get on board, check out Dolls Of Highland and Full Circle Nightmare first, but otherwise... look, I still have hopes for Kyle Craft and maybe this'll just prove to be a misstep where the details will get finetuned and he'll recover quickly - his output has proven he can do that. Let's just hope it's sooner rather than later.

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