Jessie Kilguss Brings Her Purist Tunesmithing and Subtle Lyrical Power to the Rockwood
Jessie Kilguss wrote Great White Shark in prison. We don’t know if the multi-instrumentalist lit-rock songwriter violated any of ex-Governor Andrew Cuomo’s insane 2020 antisocial distancing regulations, but she wasn’t in the slammer because of that. She actually walked out of jail that day. Full disclosure: she came up with the song while leading a songwriting class for prisoners.
It’s the first single on her new album What Do Whales Dream About at Night?, which is due to hit her Bandcamp page this weekend. It’s got stately, bittersweet ELO major/minor changes, Naren Rauch’s layers of jangly guitars mingling with Kilguss’ harmonium and soaring, subtly mapled vocals.
The rest of the record reflects Kilguss’ stature as one of the great tunesmiths to emerge from this city in the past decade. It’s her deepest dive into lush chamber pop, and her most lyrically opaque release to date: her narratives really draw you in. She paints a guardedly hopeful if surreal picture in the first track, House of Rain and Leaves over a distantly bucolic guitar backdrop: “The rules don’t apply to you, at least not mine,” she relates
Rauch teams with bassist Whynot Jansveld and drummer Brian Griffin for a Some Girls-era Stonesy drive in the second track, Outside, Kilguss channeling righteous anger as she reaches for the rafters. The Attacca Quartet‘s Nathan Schram is a one-man string section over increasingly brooding layers of jangle and clang in The Tiger’s Wife, a metaphorically-loaded tale.
Coyote Street is the big anthemic hit here, a vivid LA tableau which could be the Church at their late 80s peak with a woman out front. Kilguss took the inspiration for the elegantly orchestrated, swaying title track from Serhiy Zhadan’s poem Headphones, a reflection on psychologically escaping an earlier Ukrainian conflict. Kilguss finally drops her signature allusiveness for a witheringly direct look at how violence percolates downward.
The album’s longest, most lushly symphonic track is Sleepwalking Heart, a slow, Lou Reed-tinged existential view of the psychology of denial. She picks up the pace with the similarly Velvetsy Roman Candles and closes the record with You Were Never Really Here, a delicate, painterly detailed portrait of a doomed relationship, spiced with wistful glockenspiel. Listeners who’ve been entranced by Kilguss’ earlier and often more overtly dark work are going to love this. It’s one of the best albums of 2022.
Kilguss is playing the album release show with a string section at the downstairs room at the Rockwood on Sept 23 at 8:30 PM for $10. Onstage, she can be outrageously funny: check out her deliciously snarky dismissal of Ted-talk pretense.