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Since 1995 when her self-titled debut album appeared, songwriter Kim Richey has pushed her own envelope enough times so that she can't be put into any kind of box, Chinese or otherwise. Richey has experienced numerous successes as a songwriter, having her songs recorded by some of the biggest names in the country biz. Yet despite overwhelming critical success, the general public hasn't completely gone over. It's difficult to understand why, since Richey understands the nuance of pop songwriting to a 'T'. She has a fine, large voice that is deeply expressive and adds depth and dimension to virtually everything she sings. Whatever the reason, one can only hope that as an artist she has found deep satisfaction in creating a body of work that will stand the test of time long after many of her contemporaries are gone. Chinese Boxes is her debut album for Vanguard and her first in five years. It is as different from Rise as it was from Glimmer as it was Bitter Sweet. In other words, Richey's obsession to get a song across holds no formula. Rise was spare and minimal, and this is a beautiful sweeping record with horns, strings, bright and shiny textures that aren't necessarily slick. Recorded in the U.K. with Giles Martin producing, Richey has constructed a series of classic themed and framed pop songs. The airy, breezy opener "Jack and Jill," written with Katie Herzig, contains flutes, saxes, a Wurlitzer, kazoo, and a harpsichord along with the guitars, organic percussion and drums. Yet the tune drifts with its gorgeous melody and melancholy message. The title track, about a lover who is a mystery, endless and unfathomable, mercurial and impossible to identify, contains a B-3, a horn section, and mandolin! Its melody is jaunty, it flows, moves and twirls. Yet it's not all sweetness and light; actually, none of it is, the lyrics in these songs are mature, free of clichés and easy conclusions. "The Absence of Your Company" is a devastating song about a breakup. Not in its drama, but because of the lack of it. With fingerpicked acoustic guitars, a piano, brushed drums, bass and a wooly, spaced-out guitar break, it feels like the saddest song in the world despite its mid-tempo gait. It's as if the protagonist, who may indeed be hurt by the distance created emotionally between her and her beloved, can simply walk away, as if she's so used to these scenes that even though she dies a little in the process (which is a lot of dying, if the lyrics are to be believed, and this particular woman has seen a lot of this), she simply picks up her toys and goes home. She's not playing. She takes her open wounds and slips away into the ether. "Turn Me" is a seemingly melancholy country song -- a modern one, and don't be surprised if some wily producer gets a current "superstar" to record it -- but it's one of the most beautiful and devoted love songs written in the genre in years because of its adult view of love. There's hope, there's surrender, there's willingness to hang in there no matter what. With the gorgeous guitar layers, both acoustic and electric, a harmonium and Wurlitzer, the song is so much bigger than its frame. It enters deeply into the human heart and whispers a truth so profound it's rather remarkable she could get it inside a song. This is not hollow-eyed, empty-headed romanticism, but the real thing. What's a mindblower is that this is merely the first half of the album! The Beatlesque psychedelic pop in "I Will Follow" is full of hidden twists and turns, but they lay in between the layers of instruments as the singer speaks of a kind of blind faith that may be wary, but expresses its lack of choice in that it has to trust the dreams and visions that are her bidders. The existential emptiness in "Something to Say" expresses a kind of loneliness at time's passage, but the tune's melody belies it and sets the two almost against one another. There's hope here, but the hope lies not in the moment, even as it longs for presence of mind. It's a rainy day song with an infectious sense of purpose and a glimmer (no pun intended) at the edge of the clouds. "Not a Love Like This" is a rocker with knotty guitars, an accordion and shuffling acoustics where the protagonist lets it rip that she's had enough of doubt, of emptiness, of being ignored, of being left "in the wind to twist." The final two cuts, "Another Day" and "Pretty Picture," are fitting closers in that they bring all of these emotions into a kind of resignation and the willingness to embrace it all again, because what else is there but love? Lyrics aside, the musical sophistication here is the main thing. Richey's album is the most sensual she's ever recorded. Not so much in the erotic sense necessarily (though the suggestion of that is here but it's very subtle, and exists as an extension of emotion), but in that the listener is engaged on every level, her words paint pictures to see, ones that bring the memory of touch and the smell of the air as these things occur. One can hear in the beautiful arrangements and instrument choices that these songs are alive; they're breathing entities and will not be reigned in by time. They are ever present. The choice of styles and tempos, the adornments she and Martin clothe these songs in are elegant because they admit light, warmth, and change and are ready for any season. On first listen, Chinese Boxes may not be as arresting as Glimmer or Bitter Sweet, but it is a better recording than both ultimately, if not as dramatic upon first glance. It takes the listener inside it gradually but deeply, and leaves them with traces of its musicality, its characters, and its melodies long after the record is over. It also draws one back, seductively, without artifice or false promise. This is one of those recordings you will be able to listen to in five years and realize it's still current, still full of both meaning and style because it adheres to neither exclusively. It concerns itself with little but with the needs dictated by song, and therefore, to truth itself.
Performance CreditsKim Richey Primary Artist,Acoustic Guitar,Percussion,Tambourine,Vocals
Giles Martin Bass,Piano,Glockenspiel,Electric Guitar,Harmonium,Harpsichord,Hammond Organ,Vibes,fender rhodes,Wurlitzer
Andy Maclure Bongos,Drums
Billy Mowbray Flute,Piano,Kazoo,Hammond Organ,Saxophone,Triangle,Background Vocals,Human Whistle,Mellotron,Vibes
Technical CreditsPhilip Bagenal Engineer
Giles Martin Producer,Audio Production
Kim Richey Composer,Prop Design
Joan Osborne Composer
Neilson Hubbard Composer
Georgette Cartwright Creative Services Coordinator
Bill DeMain Composer
Stephen Brower Marketing
Katie Herzig Composer
Billy Mowbray Composer
Dan Sell Marketing