Krystle Warren comes across as an assured, long-playing talent, blending familiar and rootsy acoustic soul balladry, jazz, funk and general eclecticism to create a stunning and instantly classic-sounding debut album. Circles showcases Warren’s voice, which leaps octaves and whispers smokily through intricate and often jaw-dropping coffeehouse arrangements.
The thrill of hearing Circles for the first time compares favourably to one’s first experiences with Tracy Chapman‘s debut, or Norah Jones‘s Come Away With Me. This debut album genuinely plays like the long awaited latest from a mainstay songwriter you first heard about in college.
But those Jones and Chapman comparisons don’t really do Warren justice. There are shades of Erykah Badu in her acoustic soul, and Nina Simone in her jazzier moments as well. Her voice has got an old-soul quality to it, at times velvety as Billie Holiday. But Krystle Warren does her own thing, and she does it well.
She may have gotten her start in Kansas (is there a more unlikely source for such a raw and emotive talent?), but she had her edges worn rough in New York and Paris, and every difficult day she ever lived through shines like a glint of slanted sunlight through a tarnished windowpane.
Warren’s backing band The Faculty are nothing short of brilliant. Nuances are teased out and spun round jazzily. Upright bass and brushed drums brighten the corners, whilst pianos (electric and otherwise) tinkle. Occasionally, a pedal steel guitar bleats unexpectedly (as on the two-step Current Events), and barbershop harmonies complement Warren’s rusty croon, though hers is a nearly impossible voice to blend with.
The template here is jazz, funk, R&B and classic soul, but The Faculty bend the rules at every turn, creating a backdrop that is at once familiar and just unstable enough so as not to recede into the dreaded milieu of mere background music. Not surprisingly, though, the album’s most wrenching and arresting moments come when the band drops out momentarily, and Warren is left alone with only her voice and her acoustic guitar.
Year End Issue opens the album with the sort of sound that Ben Harper packaged so perfectly on Lifeline. This is soul from a bygone era, warm and hazy through a film of dust and a wayward sea of wine-bottle memories. Warren sings a difficult and captivating love song: “My heart won’t lie, it’s always true. Doesn’t mean that I love you. Doesn’t mean that I can’t touch you in hopes that you touch me.”
Three Women is pure ’70s AM Gold; lazy and swooning. Sunday Comfort has all the gentle acoustic appeal of a gospel spiritual, but it’s turned to a rollicking funk number when the band comes in full. The Means To Be swings and sways with near country and western overtones. Chelsea Piers recalls The Beatles‘ Her Majesty in the best way possible. Some Trivial Pursuit rounds out the album on a somber, melancholy note with the haunting question: “Is that why people think life is beautiful? Because they know it ends?”
Krystle Warren is the real thing. Circles is the sort of album that proves staying power and reinvigorates an artist midway through a career. To consider that this is Warren’s first attempt is nearly staggering. This is an album that will wear well, and that will quickly become an old friend. Warren is a rare talent, and her career will certainly be one to watch.