After seeing a show this week down on NYC's Lower East Side—the super trendy area that's gone from original cold water tenements to a frat boy, drink 'n' drown hell to the current swank wine store and bistro on every corner `hood—I think singer/songwriter Kim Richey is full into a long overdue return to form. While not a masterpiece, her new record, Chinese Boxes, is the best thing she's done since her 1997 sophomore record, Bitter Sweet. The title tune, for example, is tuneful, full of hit single.
Existing somewhere in the nexus of Shawn Colvin, John Hiatt, Linda Ronstadt and any number of other roots/pop performers, the sweet–voiced Richey is most famed for her eponymous, Richard Bennett–produced 1995 debut, which remains one of the finest collections of melancholically sweet, at times almost Britpop songs ever released. I listened to it before going to the show and the thing is still a knockout. "Those Words We Said," "You’ll Never Know," "Here I Go Again" and "Just My Luck" (all co-written, by the way, with her now ex-bandmate/collaborator Angelo) are all a perfect mix or upbeat pop tunes about love gone bad. Her second record, Bitter Sweet has what is perhaps her best song, "Every River," which has the kind of chord progression seen in the tunes by immortals like Dylan. Yeah you read right: I'm sayin' she wrote a tune that's in a league with something Bobby mighta thunk up.
Unfortunately, Richey has become much less interesting since. Her low point came in 1999 when her pairing with producer Hugh Padgham (Police, XTC) resulted in Glimmer, which suffered from weak material, an ill-judged, fussy production gloss and lyrics that make "cheesy" sound like a good thing. For a lesson in how not to produce a record, and bad sound incarnate, give that one a listen. It's one imperfect record that caused a lot of longtime fans like myself to think perhaps that Kim's run was over.
After her performance at the Living Room, and an unnamed backup singer who despite her best efforts could not even remotely keep time on a hand drum, I'm thinking she's not done yet. One sticky songwriting problem remains from her Glimmer days however: too many similar-sounding ballads about how she got her heart broke. I don't care if you ARE Dylan, no one gets away with a steady diet of boohoo, broken heart weepers, excepting of course those who have no interest in expanding their audience and/or having a viable career. C'mon Kim, let's mix in the upbeat numbers! There's gotta be some joy in your life?