Album Review

Kiely Connell - Calumet Queen

Kiely Connell may be a newcomer now, but based on this striking recording, she won’t be for long.

Album - Kiely Connell - Calumet Queen

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Unless you’re from around Hammond, Indiana in the States, it’s likely singer/songwriter Kiely Connell’s name is unfamiliar. As if to acknowledge that, she provides a capsule of her life and personality in the opening title track of this stunning debut.

On the strumming, melodic ‘Calumet Queen’, Connell compares her resolute drive to the titular river that runs through her hometown. “I don’t question my force / But if you do I’ll prove to you, I’ll channel through / That’s what us rivers do”, she sings with a voice so soulful, powerful and idiosyncratic that no one would question the swagger expressed.

Connell has since floated down to Nashville to pursue her musical ambitions, but there is little of that city’s twang or sparkling country in the dark, introspective folk dominating this superb introduction.

Despite, or perhaps because of, her lyrical prowess, it’s not an easy listen. Detailing attempts to overcome struggles with depression and tales of drowning problems by abusing alcohol are generally not themes a new artist immerses themselves in, especially on their first album.

But that’s why this music hits so hard. Few artists would be brave enough to sing, “Well my body feels so heavy but it can’t outweigh my mind” after starting a song with “Think I’ll take another Paxil before I crawl back into bed” as on the riveting ‘The Blues That Really Burns.’

Connell nearly cries when singing the lyrics of ‘Turning Tricks’, the ill-fated account of a prostitute trying unsuccessfully to remove herself from a life she hates, with “Her vacant deep-set eyes they hid the tortured soul that lived inside”.

The singer/songwriter inhabits these often unsettled characters with sympathy and an understanding that makes each track seem like she’s exorcising her own demons, which might be the case.

Musically, the songs benefit from generally being recorded live, a process she explains, “…because a lot of my songs are very personal, it’s something I don’t feel I can capture emotionally if I hadn’t been playing it all with my guitar and friends”. The stripped-down, often percussion-free instrumentation using occasional subtle keyboards, fiddle, pedal steel and mandolin creates the emotionally taut impact Connell expresses.

Even though she’s not from the deep South, the ominous swamp of ‘Something Evil in the Water’ (“Something evil in the water / It’s hell bent on dragging you down”) and the creeping ‘Slow N’ Low’ - where the song’s protagonist tries to dull her psychological pain by picking up a stranger in a solo chilling performance that’s raw and intense - shows she has absorbed the region’s vibe.

While some selections might benefit from a fuller sound, the combination of Connell’s stark, unadulterated stories, dialed-down production from Don Bates and an exquisite voice that cuts through any artifice and into your heart makes the spellbinding Calumet Queen a fearless, daring initial release.

Even if you don’t know anyone caught in the cycle of despair and desperation she so robustly describes, it’s impossible not to be moved by Connell’s obvious lyrical, vocal and musical talents.

Kiely Connell may be a newcomer now, but based on this striking recording, she won’t be for long.

9/10

Calumet Queen will be independently released on Friday November 12th