- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

Strange Conversation

Kris Delmhorst

Signature Sounds

In folk music, the lyrics reign supreme. Good songwriters are skilled crafters of language, and the best folk artists always seem to be carrying books, drawing on literature for inspiration.

For “Strange Conversation,” her fourth disc, New England-based Kris Delmhorst mined the classics — two songs here including the title track are derived from Hermann Broch’s 1945 “The Death of Virgil.” All 12 tracks come from poets: George Gordon Lord Byron, Robert Browning, Walt Whitman, E.E. Cummings and Edna St. Vincent Millay among them.

Miss Delmhorst has been touring the Midwest and on the West Coast with CD release shows for her new disc. She returns to the East in June and is booked at Jammin’ Java in Vienna on June 11 at 8 p.m. Meg Hutchinson shares the bill (For details, log onto www.jamminjava.com).

“Strange Conversation” marks something of a milestone for Miss Delmhorst, who took about a year out of her performance schedule to tour with songwriters Jeffrey Foucault and Peter Mulvey in the folk trio Redbird. The group performed mostly covers and earned slots at some of the top festivals in the East, capping off a successful year touring in support of their eponymous disc.

Her first two discs, “Appetite,” released in 1998 and “Five Stories” in 2001, earned critical acclaim. She easily fit the folk mold with inspiring songs that incorporated images of wildflowers and vulnerable birds, although it was clear she had a wild streak. Sonically, these discs were solidly in the traditional vein with hints of bluegrass, dabbling in rock. Her third CD, 2003’s “Songs for a Hurricane,” was edgier, although it remained true to her folk and traditional roots.

With “Strange Conversation,” Miss Delmhorst stretches into her stride. The songs stand on their own, with images of flames and burning pervading the tracks, as well as water, life, music, death and the afterlife.

Yet remarkably, in the CD booklet, Miss Delmhorst publishes the literature that provided her inspiration side-by-side with her lyrics.

Few 21st century singers would find the inherent rhythms of Browning’s 1847 “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” so easy to interpret, or Whitman’s loping “Passage to India” so natural as Miss Delmhorst has here. She took their inspiration and ran with it, writing the songs “Galuppi Baldassare” and “Light of the Light.”

With Mark C. Olson, she co-wrote music to Harlem Renaissance writer James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 lyric, “Sence You Went Away,” turning it into a ballad of palpable longing; and she put Byron’s 1817 “We’ll Go No More A-Roving” to a country-blues accompaniment with torchy vocals.

Undaunted by George Eliot’s stilted 1867 Victorian poem, “O May I Join the Choir Invisible,” Miss Delmhorst reduced the language to its essence and set it all to a slow jazz march with overtones of a New Orleans funeral, horns and all.

The disc closes with the 13th-century Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi’s “Where Everything is Music,” which reprises the New Orleans backing with clarinet and horns, bringing the disc full circle with Browning’s musical allusions in “Galuppi Baldassare.”

Considering that she dwells so long with Virgil’s deep ponderances on the meaning of beauty and pursuit of unattainable perfection, Miss Delmhorst alone can judge how near she came to her own goals.

“It’s both our curse and our grace, here in this place/to reach for heights that we’ll never climb,” she writes in “The Drop & the Dream,” inspired by Mr. Broch’s essays on Virgil.

We listeners should be grateful for her attempt.

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