Western Massachusetts strikes again. Fronted by Beverly Ketch and Robert Thomas, Stella Kola is rounded out with support from members of John Andrew’s Yawns, Sunburned Hand of the Man, understated guitar hero Willie Lane, bliss ambassador Wednesday Knudsen, and a whole slew of Feeding Tube records alumni. The self-titled debut from the ensemble makes clear an intention to work themselves into a small, yet prolific scene that fully embraces the groundbreaking era of the British Isles electrified folk rapture at the close of the 1960s.
From the opening fingerpicked notes of “Rosa” it’s apparent that Stella Kola draw from a significant pool of astral folk influences—Vashti Bunyan, Fairport Convention, Bridget St. John, even East of Eden’s more subdued moments. Yet, there’s nothing glaringly obvious as their main source of inspiration. As always, the dialectic approach is preferred in these scenarios. Arriving at the muted wind arrangements of “First Fret” it’s clear that instead of imitation, the group has carefully pulled from their vast net, the ability to craft a familiar sonic embrace. But more importantly is their capacity to bring these sources together in such novel fashion. “Epiphany” is just that. Reverb drenched vocals floating atop a carefully constructed shuffle throws the listener into a romp through the countryside—be it England’s midlands or Massachusetts’s Berkshires. The first side of Stella Kola, for the most part, nourishes this notion of pastoral idyll. The type of music aligned with Heron or Mellow Candle (or even the more nuanced moments of the psychedelic jazz-pop fusion of The California Dreamers in the company of the mighty Gabor Szabo). You can imagine the group assembled in fields of sedge and foxgloves, letting their sounds mingle among the din of birdsong and wind.
The group eventually steps out of those sanguine meadows, tightens up their focus, and launch into a rollicking, hard rockin’ “November” as the side nears its close. Complete with Thompson-style guitar attack in conversation with a wayward fiddle, the group commits to pulling off the heavier side of the brit-folk thing and absolutely succeed. At a full gallop for the first and only time on the record, the tune lets the group stretch out just enough before getting back to the main proceedings. In the best way possible, the affair is followed with the whisper pop lullaby, “Summer Night.” Like an unplugged Yo La Tengo fronted by Vashti Bunyan, the tune has that oh-so-rare, yet totally desirable quality that slows the world down for its brief 2-minute run time, leaving the listener begging for more, if only for their own consolation.
And while the Brit-folk roots run deep throughout Stella Kola, the ensemble manages to let their songcraft-oriented chamber music shine throughout the release. The Baroque-pop of “The Air We Breathe” and “Heart in the Rain” bear a restrained sultriness—finding a sweet spot between Nick Drake’s despondent reverie and the, at times, overly-literary preciousness of early Belle & Sebastian. Throw some rocks, mud, and pollen on John Cale’s masterful Paris 1919 and you’ll be pretty close to the level of care and consideration that Ketch and Thomas have put into the construction of their work.
The final portion of the record returns us to the bliss of open-air bucolic folk. Now, instead of the gleaming rays of a midday sun, we are catching the last of a fading light, before fading into the campfire’s glow. “Fair Youth & Dark Lady” wraps the listener in a gauze of slide guitar, flutes, and perfectly blissed sax. Ketch’s vocals meld perfectly into atmospheric setting of “Being is a Beggar’s Blessing” before the brief, fleeting “Live Your Lie” completes the album on a note of perfectly executed understatement. Stella Kola operates within a sector of breathing new life into an until-recently-overlooked chapter of Pop music’s compounded history. Although the fourteen cuts that make up the record seem to fly by, the brief journey delivers an immense air of gratification. | j rooney
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