After last year’s largely restrained, Americana-tinged and reflective Behind A Veil, the New York-born, Austin-based singer-songwriter Jess Klein returns to the gutsier, punchy and often downright rock ‘n’ roll style of 2007’s City Garden for her ninth studio album Learning Faith.
There’s an edginess that runs throughout, established from the outset with the swampy blues, slide guitar title track opener, the first song written for the album and one which underpins its sense of deternination and acting on instinct as she sings “I remember looking off of that cliff at how the bridge would swing each time the wind would shift and yet I felt the need to grip the guardrails in my palms, the need to move forward, the need to carry on”. Were there any doubts about Klein’s self-belief confidence, then they’ll be blown away by the stomping, bass throbbing in your face punked-up self-declamatory So Fucking Cool which reimagines Lucinda Williams as Joan Jett.
If you want more gustiness, look no further than the slow, grinding sparse swampiness of Only The Blues, a celebration of the genre’s ability to carry the weight of your world on its shoulders and for “three chords and a microphone” to provide a channel to unchain the pain. Elsewhere, in similar muscular vein you’ll find Long Way Down which, with its snarling guitars, has a steady, determined bluesy swagger to mirror lines like “it’s a long way back, it’s a long way down, it’s a long way, won’t get there today, but I won’t be turning around”.
It’s not all musical clenched fists, there’s a softer side to be found in Loving You, an acoustic hymn to optimism (“and so the human race goes on and swears it’s on a road to doom and still I’m moved to sing a song and pull some kind of magic through”) with a melody and tumbling chorus that echo with memories of Patsy Cline.
The same tenderness is felt on the early Emmylou colours of the simple voice and guitar of the heartbreaking Wish and the pulsing metronome beat of Open Road, though, with the former dealing with an unpredictable abusive dysfunctional father and the latter, about a friend whose life on the road took its toll through the demons to which she was exposed, neither are exactly lyrically upbeat.
If anger is tempered with understanding and sadness here, it’s let off the leash on two connected songs that both feature God in their titles. If There’s A God is a powerful mid-tempo southern swampy blues protest number inspired by her experience of the 5000 people who gathered at the Capitol Building in Austin to protest against Texas Governor Rick Perry’s anti-abortion policies (“if there’s a God, God is gonna rain down hell on you”) while, addressing the same subject, Dear God is a swaggering, march-beat country rocker sung in the voice of a pregnant seventeen-year-old who “tried to see the doctor today but the governor slammed the door right in my face.”
On a collection of knockouts, it would be the album’s standout number were it not for Surrender, a song about letting yourself give in to love, remove the metal plate from over your heart and follow your intuition not your fears which, driven by a steady drum beat and chugging guitar riff and featuring understated organ and a Eurythmics-like electronic voice sample, sees Klein channel her inner Stevie Nicks to soaring, anthemic effect. Not only is it easily one of the best things she’s ever recorded, but this is unquestionably the finest album of her impressive career.
Review by: Mike Davies