Kristina Stykos with Phillip AabergSweetgrass Music - 12-15- 2010
It’s not often that the poetry of words can be so well matched with its counterpart in sound and no one does this better than Vermont producer and musician Kristina Stycos. On her latest CD Raven there are some hard edges to decipher but it is the human spirit’s will to embrace The Journey that triumphs on this CD. Windham Hill Records pianist and Grammy nominated producer Phillip Aaberg joins her and together they forge their own path in the New Americana landscape.
Raven, Raven opens the set to lay the groundwork as the articulate steel-string guitar reveals a melody at once both dark and shimmering, ominous yet hopeful. In a smoky whisper she sings:
“Raven, Raven black as silk
Dark as night, pure as milk
Fold me in your ragged arms
Keep my heart away from harm”
And what about her voice? Different. With an approach in intensity to Mary Gauthier’s, Stycos can also shift gears to a more colorful palette and she will, no doubt, surprise you when she does.
A stinging mandolin soars above the fray like a raven, the merging of imagery, sound and thought. The metaphor of flying is a constant throughout the record as she borrows from the natural world to transcend the inner. Still, there are times when all poetry is put aside to stand naked, as in the chorus from Abenaki Hills:
“I’m looking even though I cannot see
I’m looking –will god help me?”
The album moves like a cheetah one moment or a team of oxen the next. As in the former, Thing For You gives both musicians room to fly with pulse driven snake-like drums and dancing keyboards, while her voice is cloaked in Dylanesque punk, sultry and cutting:
“I got my yoga, I got my brain cells
I’m a little bit damaged, but I’ll manage…
I got a solar gain attraction,
I got a light bending rainbow, passionate diffraction”
It also reveals some subtle but big time production skills that please the ear at every turn and could put songs like this onto any Triple-A radio playlist - whatever that may be nowadays.
The oxen pull hard in the 12 bar blues Piece of Lovin’, and it’s this kind of song that assures The Raven never gets weighted down in content or pace. Yet suddenly, with the album only half over, it delivers a one-two knockout punch starting with Last Cup of Love:
“It’s a tired rugged road, and a flagon for the asking
It’s a hearth filled with coals and a heart everlasting
It’s the rough hand of fate, that’s dealt without warning
It’s the last cup of love and your smile in the morning”
Then Cherish the Day is like a stone dropped on the calm glassy surface of a lake with the ripples fanning out – inviting you in to its profound reverence:
“Let’s cherish the day for all that we’ve dreamed
Cherish the leaf and the journey,
the current the stream
Cherish the crossroads and those left behind,
Cherish your life.”
If your heart is open, you’ll receive it, if it’s closed, it will help it to heal.
As is often the case, the making of Raven itself mirror’s the rollercoaster ride contained within. Even with it’s core of songs already written and recorded, Stycos nearly abandoned the project in a year-long search for the right ingredients that could reveal their true identity. It finally took a late summer cross-country ride to Aaberg’s somewhere in Montana studios where he added just the right touch of sampled strings along with his signature acoustic piano and the proverbial plethora of keyboard ‘sounds.’ Last but not least, he’s a top-notch drummer and it was the sum of these contributions that prompted a co-billing for the project as a whole.
How many producers in the world play both keys and drums? Talk about having your sonic bases covered. And Lord, can he play the piano. I saw him years ago in a Burlington, Vermont church in his Windham Hill incarnation, co-billed with William Ackerman and playing his explosive classical-pop compositions. Where do these artists go when they leave their nationally distributed record labels? Believe me, they are alive and very well:
Raven can, at times, be brutally direct in its approach to matters of the heart, be they intimacy, devotion, or one’s own failings. In Don’t Walk Away the singer has no time to nibble around the edges:
“Don’t walk away just like you done before
Don’t walk away while I can only cry
Don’t walk away just like a man who’s gone
Don’t you walk away this time…
He Will Be Free offers non-stop/ machine gun lyrics of a mystical meeting of an all too real account of a prisoner - and friend, ending his own life.
If your willing to meet this album halfway, it’ll amuse, endear, and take you for an unpredictable ride. Turn Off the Noise closes out Raven in fitting fashion, rising slowly, then soaring, peaking high, and imploring:
“Shut off the input, while there’s still time
You got distractions taking your mind
I want to touch you, birds got to fly
Let’s turn on the ocean and turn on the sky
Let’s turn off the noise …and get quiet.”