Karen Dahlstrom’s New Gem State Is Exactly That
Which US state does best as far as songs are concerned? It’s New York, with a bullet. Alabama, of all places, also does awfully well: sweet home y’all. Even Australians love Massachusetts; T for Texas and T for Tennessee are right behind, with Missouri and then Illinois a little further back. Who’s last on the list? Mississippi – everybody except for Jimmy Rogers hates it. Oklahomans are all singing So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya, but KKKillafornia isn’t much better. Where does Idaho rate? Close to the bottom. It doesn’t draw much interest – rappers have been very unkind, the B-52s saw it as a metaphor for madness, and Kurt Neumann of the BoDeans wrote his best song about it, sarcastically taking the point of view of a redneck there who stares at the world and completely misses the picture. And aside from a couple of Chuck Berry references, that’s about it. But Idaho has a new champion: Karen Dahlstrom, whose brilliantly rustic new album Gem State vividly explores the history of her home turf.
In a way, it’s pretty remarkable that she found the time to make this record: one of the most sought-after players in the booming New York Americana scene, Dahlstrom is the rhythm guitarist and sings in killer acoustic gothic band Bobtown and also plays regularly with the Evangelines, and most recently in Jan Bell’s magnificent Maybelles. If you wanted to, you could pigeonhole this as “metrobilly,” but Dahlstrom’s period-perfect old west songwriting transcends any kind of label. The west was a tough place, and these are dark songs. She sings them in a low, cool, often troubled voice, with a stark, wary edge and lyrics full of historical references just like the old folk songs she draws on. “My true love lies in a soldier’s grave,” the narrator of the brooding first track, The Miner’s Bride explains – so she’s gone off to mining country to meet her new husband, maybe for the first time. There’s some sweet, terse slide guitar work by co-producer Kenny Siegal. The most stunning track here, Galena, is a haunting, sad waltz lit up with mandolin and accordion, recalling Gold Rush-era disillusion and despair:
We traded our picks for walking canes
Forgot wives we left on the farm
And stole down tiger alleyways
With girls from the line on our arm
A slow, mournful oldtime lament, Starling is a showcase for Dahlstrom’s multi-instrumentalist chops, contrasting spiky mandolin against a backdrop of boomy upright bass. She sings Pocatello mostly a-cappella, in the style of 19th century railroad ballads – it’s a menacing, doomed tale that begins with religion and child abuse, the perfect combination for creating a nation of cannon fodder. The last song is the gorgeously bittersweet One More Time, a co-write with Siegal, his sepulchral organ whispering behind the stately strum of the guitars as Dahlstrom evokes a picturesque Idaho setting. It’s great to hear such a compelling singer out in front of the band this time: this has to be one of the half-dozen best albums of the year. The whole thing is streaming at reverbnation; Dahlstrom plays with Bobtown on Oct 30 at the Jalopy on a killer Halloween bill with Mamie Minch, Frankenpine, the Newton Gang and others and then at Freddy’s on Nov 11 with her new duo project the Do-Overs.