Kim Kalman – At Last (2013)

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Kim Kalman, whose grandfather was mid-century big band leader George Kindler, reconnects with the sounds and styles of that bygone era on At Last – and reanimates some shopworn classics along the way.

The North Carolina-based Kalman, who co-produced the acoustic-tinged At Last, arrives at this album as a decorated songwriter in her own right. Tracks from Moonlight, one of three previous solo projects, have been recognized by the Kerrville Music Festival and Billboard. She has also issued a Yuletide-themed effort, and four Christian albums, the most recent of which was At the Foot of the Cross. But Kalman perhaps seemed fated to return to these long-treasured moments, to these songs – seeing as there was a family connection.

In keeping, she brings an unvarnished enthusiasm, not to mention a guileless passion, to a group of songs that – in others’ hands – have often simply come to feel routine. Kalman, a College of William and Mary alum, doesn’t approach At Last with that kind of studious attention to detail. She lives in these moments, even as she reimagines them with an Americana feel, and they are borne anew.

“I Only Have Eyes For You” opens with a ruminative guitar, before Jim Hoke’s luminous saxophone joins Kalman’s husky interpretation. When she gets to the tricky chorus, which can so often test a singer’s impulse to over-emote, Kalman handles it with a confidential directness. “Fly Me to the Moon,” which begins with a typically forgotten introductory stanza, is given a similarly gimmick-free reading – even as the rhythm section of Dave Francis and Dennis Holt ramp up to a coltish pace. That provides Dennis Wage a perfect opportunity to add some winking lines on the piano. “Almost Like Being in Love,” frisky and fun, now boasts a memorable impishness. Pat McGrath’s acoustic returns to the fore for a spacious arrangement of “Since I Fell For You,” and Kalman’s commitment to every heart-shatteringly lonesome line is palpable. She slows down “My Buddy” to the point where every moment thrums with emotion.

Not everything is so perfectly attenuated. “Crazy,” indelibly connected now to Patsy Cline, adheres to a saloon-style atmosphere that’s become sadly rote – though, to be honest, Kalman still pulls off the lyric’s broken majesty just fine. “On a Slow Boat to China” is marred by its old-fashioned chorus of swing-era singers, which might have worked better if so much of the rest of At Last hadn’t hewed toward leaner, more modern acoustic arrangements.

Kalman quickly rights herself – as improbable as it may seem – with “Unforgettable,” even though the song has been worn down to its frayed threads over the years through a seemingly never-ending succession of soundtracks, commercial rip offs and cobbled-together “duets.” She gives it a finely detailed reading, however, and her performance is bolstered by a riffy and very cool interlude between electric guitarist Ray Herndon and Wage.

“All of Me” is refashioned with a chipper groove that borders on Western swing, and – in direct contrast to the old-fashioned hagiography attached to “Slow Boat” – the song has never sounded fresher. I’m not sure if Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons could have imagined this for their song, some 82 years ago. But it’s a match made in Great American Songbook heaven. Finally, there’s her loss-filled take on the title track – which is presented not as Etta James’ tough-minded moment of redemption but (with a smoky assist from Hoke) as something sadder and oaken – something muttered down the phone, to someone far away, very, very late at night.

It’s one final triumph of loving, joy-filled, but often blissfully uncareful reinterpretation for Kalman.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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