A funny thing happened to me on my way to the Jennifer Kimball article: I found out I had really sold her debut CD, “Veering From the Wave” (Imaginary Road/Polygram) short. Originally, I confessed some disappointment; I had been a big fan of her duo with Jonatha Brooks, the Story, and probably felt those records had set the bar pretty high, as they had been remarkably original. In retrospect, they were quite influential as well -you can see a little school popping up there a decade or so ago, founded by the Story, Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, and Patty Larkin, who were basically taking some roots out of acoustic music and substituting a little mystery and some production values. Thank you, lawd!
Anyway, hard act to follow. And me being a butthead, I neglected to notice that there were more than a few great songs on there, as I had originally reported; in fact, there was a whole stretch of great stuff! I still maintain that she saved all the best stuff for the second half, but, jeese, there’s some great stuff on here I missed completely, like “The Revelations”, which is one of those blasts of pop I’m always talking about, complete with Beatles-like piccolo trumpet and vaguely Arabian-sounding tape loops or something. Delightful! And the lovely ballads “World Without End” and “Lullaby” -wonderful.
And here’s the kicker: two of the cuts are just Kimball playing solo, sans backing and overdubs, and, despite the fact that the other players are impeccable throughout (especially guitarist Duke Levine, who also played with the Story, and who definitely knows a nice, lonely, dreamy landscape when he hears one), these solo tracks are both definite high points.
Which is lucky for us, because for her upcoming appearance at the Stand Up for Choice concert for Mass NARAL, the state-wide pro-choice organization, on Thursday, November 21st, at First Parish Universalist Church in Brewster, she’ll be performing solo. (Spunky local poetry slammer Kristin Knowles will no doubt be appropriately dazzling in the opening slot.)
You’d think Ms. Kimball would be nervous, but when I spoke with her last weekend, she seemed OK. We chatted for about an hour when I declared all the Important Questions asked and answered, only to realize shortly after I got off the phone that I had completely neglected to ask her about her remarkable career as a background vocalist -she’s sung on about sixty albums in the past decade or so. A high amount like that would imply that she not only sings good, but she’s not obnoxious. I think that’s what gives her the edge over the other background singers; but I forgot to ask her about that, too. I had to email back -very embarrassing.
She says that she once did a (paid) audition for the “Folger’s in your cup” jingle, and that it was humiliating. She also cut some tracks for a Christian singer named Paul Beloche, but only on the condition that she not have to “sing I love God sort of stuff” (Jennifer is a Presbyterian, not a zealot.)
Her most thrilling background singing moment? “Singing with Jackson Browne on a tour with him, with the Story opening as a duo, for two weeks in the fall of ’93. There were these cool parts on a tune from his ’93 record, and one show was kind of unplugged -he didn’t have his whole band -and we jumped up on stage and recreated those parts so beautifully he brought us out every night after that to do the same. Tooting my horn, I’m afraid; but it was fun.”
She’s also involved at present in at least a couple of other side projects: Wayfaring Strangers, with violinist Matt Glazer, Andy Statman on clarinet and mandolin, banjo maverick Tony Trischka, and a host of guest vocalists (the album, called “Shifting Sands of Time”, came out last year on Rounder); and Maybe Baby, a band she formed with her boyfriend Ry Cavanaugh that will soon release its debut album, “What Matters.”
Both these bands lean heavier on roots music than Jennifer does on her own. The Maybe Baby album features a lovely Appalachian-flavored song called “Coal Machine” and a nice little pop song called “Little Live Things”, both written by Kimball.
The Story occasionally used unusual, sometimes even dissonant harmonies, and had a sense of adventurousness that was rare in acoustic music (it’s fitting she hooked up with Trischka, a Thelonious Monk disciple who similarly brought an edge to bluegrass banjo about twenty years ago.) The quirkiness occasionally carried over into the lyrics, and Jennifer acknowledges that she and Jonatha are still big Roches fans; so that’s just one more reason to like her.