Chocolate Paper Suites
, the brilliantly constructed and just plain brilliant new album by Bloomington-based singer-songwriter Krista Detor, breaks down into four suites of three songs each that comprise the album proper, with a bonus three-song suite, "Darwin Songhouse," featuring songs she wrote for last year's Darwin Song Project (which I'll detail at the close of this review).
First to those delicious suites. In the first, "Oranges Fall Like Rain," Detor travels from Spain to Prague and back to the primeval dusk ("I will go breathless whispering her name...I will go breathless into that good night," closes "Recklessness and Rust" with an echo of Dylan Thomas). Oranges, which figure in the surreal album art, drop into each song, first sold by a vendor in the bouncy, alt-rock "Rich Man's Life," then falling off trees to conjure warmer climates in "Lorca in Barcelona."
"Night Light" moves from oranges to moons and looks up towards the stars (and as an autobiographical hint in the liner notes, she thanks some friends for the gift of a telescope). Detor, whose piano accompaniment sticks around the same register as her throaty alto, is at her jazziest, breathiest, slinkiest on these tunes - "Teeter-Totter on a Star" recalls jazz standards without departing from her style, and "All to do with the Moon" has a lullaby feel.
"Madness of Love" is the most anxious, upbeat suite on the album, but also the most emotionally involved: "Innuendo" depicts the lovelorn songwriter staying up writing instead of being with her beloved; "Middle of a Breakdown" is a climax to the album, after which the speaker will pick up the pieces.
The final suite, "By Any Other Name," synthesizes the prior suites. The speaker has arrived at a knowing, bittersweet point in her life, acknowledging that she'll never have time to kiss the girls she hasn't kissed or write the books she hasn't written. "Small Things" recalls the oranges and stars of previous suites, arriving at a cosmically intimate moment: "From the backseat, I watched Jupiter and Europa meet / and at the angle, he kissed her / in the small space between her fingers..."
But I'm not here to just give a precis; Detor's lyrics are thoughtful, direct, skillful in their deployment of imagery (particularly in those first three list songs, which talk about colors, food and love in unique, indeed, poetic ways), but it's her music and arrangements that are truly compelling. She works with a crew of talented musicians, including saxophonist Tom Clark and hammered dulcimer player Malcolm Dalglish, and employs arrangements that enhance the meaning of each song in their turn. Which is, of course, what you're supposed to do; perhaps where Detor stands out is in her eclecticism, range and sensitivity to subject matter - a song about a breakdown is appropriately jangly, upbeat and a little off-key; another about Lorca has tinges of Spanish song; all never depart from Detor's wheelhouse on the lower end of the piano, and are tied together by seamless transitions between each song within a suite.
Finally, to the Darwin Songhouse suite, which collects three songs that Detor composed during March 2009, when she and seven other songwriters gathered in Shrewsbury, England to write songs concerned with Charles Darwin's legacy. Detor's contribution is, as one might expect, thoughtful and a bit contrarian; she wrote one piece from the voice of a Miss Emma Brawley, a contemporary of Darwin's who won't accept that she's a descendant of apes and who subscribes to both biblical "history" and the then-popular notion of the world as a perfectly-forged pocketwatch created by the Creator.
Detor makes one sympathize with those who feared (and those who still fear) Darwin's ideas because of moral and spiritual concerns as well as ignorance and intransigence. On a side note, "Clock of the World" from the Songhouse suite features outstanding harmonizing between Detor and her collaborators from the other side of the pond; it's a live track from the concert (broadcast on the BBC) that was the culmination of the Darwin Song Project, and has led me to seek out the soundtrack album (available at darwinsongproject.com).