Kjersti Kveli: Counterintuitive Tunesmith, Powerful Voice, Great Band
“This song is about sacrificing people,” Kjersti Kveli laughed as she told the crowd at the Triad Theatre on the Upper West Side Friday night. Nervous laughter echoed back at her. “That’s what it’s about,” the Norwegian-American songwriter/bandleader responded matter-of-factly – and laughed again. Then midway through the broodingly crescendoing minor-key waltz – the title track to her latest album Release the Virgin – her bandmate Nicole Camacho fired off a sudden cadenza on her bass flute just as Kveli’s voice finally rose toward a scream. The effect was spine-tingling.
A few songs later, Kveli brought the ambience down to whispery and ghostly for a brief narrative about sleepwalking in the street. Toward the end of the show, she unveiled an uneasily stomping noir folk-rock anthem, Whaling Songs, her voice rising ominously against Camacho’s poltergeist wood flute and lead guitarist Tor Morten’s gritty chordwork.
But Kveli isn’t always so dark. Early on in the set, she showed a fondness for catchy two-chord vamps, giving Morten and Camacho a chance to add harmonies and fills that ranged from biting to hypnotic over the pulsing groove of drummer Anders Griffen and Old Time Musketry bassist Phil Rowan. Kveli is conservatory trained and can leap from a whisper to a wail in a split second if she wants, but she saves those moments for when she has to make a point, and usually stays in her midrange when she does. Her English is flawless, she tells a good story and has a knack for imagery that steers clear of cliche: the “loudspeaker answering machine” on the night’s lilting first number, Call Me Up, or the coin whose endless journey from hand to hand she illustrated in a fetching acoustic duet with Rowan.
Kveli and her KK Band made their way through the rest of the songs on the album and then closed with some auspiciously edgy, louder new material. With their bittersweet chord changes, the night’s two most attractively nocturnal ballads evoked Mary Lee Kortes‘ Americana-flavored work, Kveli’s crystalline voice rising anxiously over the top of the melody line before floating down to land. The rest of the songs in the set were diverse and counterintuitively arranged: a soul vamp like a Paul sketch from Abbey Road, but fully fleshed out, with gale-force vocals from Kveli; a swaying highway rock tune that waltzed along with graceful flute flourishes; a pensive ballad that she played on piano, using acid rain as a metaphor for a bitter breakup; and a hypnotic song toward the end of the show that echoed post-VU Nico but with a wounded wail. There are plenty of women in New York with pretty voices, toting acoustic guitars; Kveli’s ability to shift seamlessly between genres, not to mention her fantastic band, puts her a cut above most of them. She also recorded this show, so she’s got a good live album to put out if she sees fit. In the meantime, she’s giving the subscription model a shot, sort of a Kickstarter where you get a new single from her over the next year every time she records one.