I’m accustomed to going to performances that pique my interest without knowing much about the band or artist. Kim Ritchie’s resume alone made her sound like someone I should see, particularly as my interest in country music grows. Grammy Award nominated, hits for the Dixie Chicks etc, my imagination flashed to visions of upbeat country pop melodies sung with a bit of verve.
I’m also used to having my expectations disappointed but usually find some elements of any performance to enjoy – sadly these were all too rare in this case. Which sounds a bit harsh, and possibly is on re-listening to the performance on my recording of the night (which I use for reviewing purposes only).
Ritchie has a nice voice, which has a slightly stronger country tinge when heard in playback, but the dourness of her song writing and performance played much stronger on the night. Generally speaking I would describe the landscape of the music as fairly monotonous with the occasional small peak of extra energy.
I know Ritchie has had great success with her song writing, but I found them lacking in much sophistication in compositions. Cole Porter she is not. I suppose I shouldn’t compare her to Cole Porter but the thing with a song writer like Porter was that he made cleverly constructed songs seem very simple.
Like everything else good in the world, a good song has a “surface structure” which is what everyone sees/hears, and a “deep structure” which most listeners are affected by but consciously unaware of. The lyrics of the song carry not only meaning and melody but also rhythm, all of which are anchored to this deeper structure.
Hence a singer like Frank Sinatra or Marvin Gaye, or soloist like Peter Green drop their notes in at the most unlikeliest of places but which actually connect with the deeper rhythm etc of the song. If you want to test this theory, try humming the melody to a guitar solo or vocal you love and then go back and play it and see how close you were. You may find you have actually dumbed down the song to a simplified approximation of the melody.
Anyway, getting back to Ritchie, I found her songs musically quite basic in their design, following pretty standard chord arrangements with melodies that rarely captured the imagination. She accompanied herself on the guitar with mostly perfunctory strumming of the chords, so there was not great joy to be had in the interplay of her vocals and guitar.
The primary focus of her music appears to be the lyrics but I didn’t find these particularly easy to get into. They seemed to be mostly maudlin musings on relationships and friendships. A line like “you can always count on me, like a river to the sea” commits two of the most serious sins of song writing – using obvious rhyming words, and vacuous cliques.
From her expansive dialogues between songs one could pick up that Ritchie has takes a workmanlike approach to songwriting. This is not a bad thing in itself. The famous song writing inhabitants of the Brill Building in New York treated it as a nine-to-five job and still managed to produce a huge number of memorable songs. But in this case, it felt more like Ritchie’s songs don’t come from a notably rich experience of life. In fact, it felt like Ritchie might have been lead quite a cloistered one.
A very pleasant person, of course, with plenty of in between song patter, even this only seemed to confirm my suspicion that she is not particularly perceptive of life and people. In introducing one of her songs, Ritchie described her experience of her first meeting the bass player she now collaborates with, not like anyone from Ohio she had ever met, with rings, tattoos, who “kind of scared me a little bit” till Ritchie found out he was gentle voiced collector of Bakelite. A great story – if it was 1962.
I couldn’t quite comprehend how Ritchie was so intimidated by his appearance as he sounded like one of many thousands of people you will find in any city in the world these days. In fact, it’s getting hard to find someone who DOESN’T have a tattoo, these days. He sounded like he would be right at home in Cuba Street, Wellington and surely even Ohio isn’t that much behind the times?
A bit of nitpicking on my part for sure, but I have so say my strongest response of the evening was a feeling of irritation which even artists in other reviews I have written about have not managed to engender. A work colleague who also by chance attended, was less damning, making the comment that Ritchie didn’t seem to have had a happy life.
She found also her “a bit folky” for her taste, which I thought was quite a good summation of Ritchie’s style, despite her “country” tag. Surprisingly for a country music writer, I picked up almost no country music flavours from her performance.
She came across more as an alt singer songwriter. There seems to be a real genre of morose singer songwriters and bands out there these days that are considered the inheritors of the mantle of the serious rock/folk music tradition of the 1960s and early 1970s, an umbilical chord that was in all reality cut by Punk/Hip Hop/House etc.
There’s heaps of this kind of music in the free CDs of “Best of 2014” that came with Uncut and Mojo magazines, for example.
But to me most of the artists are imitative in their personal style and their punts at originality become quite apparent as dead ends after a few listenings. In this, the music is a mirroring what is happening in the visual arts. The achievements of earlier generations of hugely talented musicians/artists have created dead zone in their wake in which the current crop are really struggling to match up to.