Kendl Winter’s fourth release Apple Core is aptly named, sounding even in its sunniest spots reduced, drained and slightly acidic. Recorded on a boat in Puget Sound, the album has an endearing sloppiness to it, as though rocking on swells muted by the water’s surrounding mountains. Her lyrics are too drained to be precious or cute. She’s hungry and she’s eating her words, while the waves swallow her whole in her bed sheet gowns. Songs like “Bluebird on the Mountainside” and “Sharp Stones into the Sea” are rolling bluegrass numbers about nature, summertime trails and yearnings for redemption from past transgressions fading quickly into memory’s recesses.
Winter’s bone-dry brittle voice isn’t forceful enough to carry an entire album’s worth of material, and Apple Core gets occasional injections of oomph from the appealing instrumental touches of strings, some pedal guitar and musty piano. Nothing here could be called a virtuoso performance, or a mastery feat of musicianship, but it works because it all plays around the furniture rather than rearranging it. Like Rose Melberg, Mirah, and other K Record progenitors, Kendl Winter eschews the overt and flashy for the spare and organic, preferring an indirect, ultimately disarming approach to melody that settles gently on whatever surface it lands. The breathy, harmonized coos at the end of “Cotton Skies” are genuine and heartfelt, and along with minimal trumpet, punctuate Apple Core‘s second-finest moment.
Top honors go to ‘”On To Me,” the album’s best example of Winter getting her songwriting really sorted. “If that shade could block the night/ it would all be over I think,” she sings, calling out her faults and flaws, agreeing to let go and move on. It works so well because it’s all delivered in a lower, clearly more comfortable vocal range, making use of her twangy Arkansas pitch. The fiddle, organ, and her omnipresent, diary-confessional harmonies are an immensely rewarding way to draw the album to its conclusion.
Not everything is within the confines of the the country comfort zone. “Dr. Tiller” is a small curio, about the slaying of the notorious Wichita, Kansas abortion doctor in May of 2009. It’s the only third-person narrative on Apple Core, and stands out, nakedly self-conscious among her other song’s gentle ruminations of love, loss and lament. It’s an interesting, though admittedly startling piece about grotesque subject matter, delivered in an oddly plaintive way that will have listeners reaching for the playback to hear her chronicle more the Doctor’s “decades of courage.”
Kendl Winter isn’t reinventing any wheels here, but there’s nothing wrong with making a straightforward record as long as there are some detours along the way. More than any other fruit, the apple has an unimpeachable history of being nourishing, of keeping doctors away with their delicate skins. She may have eaten away to the seeds, but knows they’re the raw material for growth. Listen to the spirited banjo and soft violin on “Apple Core/Cocoon Body,” and let its guarded hopefulness make its impression.
Nickel Creek – This Side
Alison Krauss – So Long So Wrong
Bela Fleck – Flight of the Cosmic Hippo