Having written, recorded and produced his debut album Dolls of Highland on a seven year old laptop in a laundry room, it’s hard to know whether Kyle Craft really knew what he was onto before he whisked it off to be mixed by Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel of The Helio Sequence.
The four preceding singles ‘Lady of the Ark,’ ‘Eye of a Hurricane,’ ‘Pentecost’ and ‘Future Midcity Massacre’ had done enough to gather a fan base and credibility maybe beyond what he was expecting but even then, no one really knew what would follow as the complete package.
From the outset, ‘Eye of a Hurricane’ begins a musical exploration, not just of Craft’s work, but of the ages, as Dolls of Highland opens with a late 19th century ragtime piano march which sets the mood and sits very well with the album in its entirety.
The general essence of ragtime being that it’s supposed to lack art so that the spirit can be infused more on Craft the performer, rather than Craft the composer, and although the latter is what makes the album come out trumps, it is certainly Craft the performer which makes this album as scintillating as it is. Over the piano, he begins building on the intro and by the time guitars and vocals are added, it’s more Craft the circus ringmaster morphing into Craft the Rock ‘n’ Roller.
His vocal style is likened to that of the over enthusiastic performer hand jiving and singing too loudly to himself whether he’s in a laundry room or a studio setting. It was the influence of Bob Dylan that got him content with his delivery to the extent that he found his own style rather than it being contrived and it’s with this influence that Kyle finds equilibrium when he reels himself back from the opener.
‘Balmorhea’ is such a song and although it does have shades of ‘Shelter from the Storm’ and picks this tune to showcase his harmonica abilities, the piano, keyboards and Craft quirks soon get to work and as with all songs on the album, becomes its own illustration.
Another of the album's secrets is how craftily it moves between tracks as ‘Berlin’ is in before ‘Balmorhea’ is out with guitar stabs between mutes are companioned with a bass and pomp-piano stomp. It’s then steeped in melody throughout and giving dynamism by the 4/4 timed middle 8 and tambourine strikes.
‘Berlin’ is just one of the many Dolls of Highland as is leading single ‘Lady of the Ark’. It’s an album about a string of messed up relationships. “This album is the dark corner of a bar,” he says. “It’s that feeling at the end of the night when you’re confronted with, now what?’”
But in Kyle’s case, the “now what?” was to go on and record potentially one of the best albums of its year thus far much like his Louisiana counterpart Father John Misty did last year. Despite the sombre narrative undertones, Dolls of Highland still manages to find a great dose of spirit and with it transforms it into something that is very much uplifting.
This is best characterised by one of the highlights ‘Gloom Girl’. The snare paradiddles give it an overall traditional folksy groove with added trumpets and once again, Craft’s knack for writing a killer chorus creates positivity and whether he’s leaving ‘Gloom Girl’ or ‘Black Mary’ behind in the blues of Shreveport, Louisiana, he’s coming out singing.
Another of the albums idiosyncrasies pop up on the short ‘Trinidad Beach (Before I Ride)’. Like cigar break music that throws up The Beatles on the bong with a dreamy-psych feel. With that, no Dylan inspired album would be complete without a ‘Future Midcity Massacre’. Keeping with the albums theme, Craft wails “Well I tried my girl to put you in a song / A tune to weep or win you back / But every time the notes fall flat, your face is made, your bags are packed / You were leaving me before you were even gone.”
The treatment of ‘Black Mary’ is much harsher though, and Craft's method of keeping things grandiose is to have a honky tonk piano rhythm underpin the track and compliment it with Hammond organ and theatrical vocals. ‘Pentecost’ (as featured on Musos’ First Listen), despite being about a friend who took his own life, is as imposing as any other song which makes it arguably the most powerful on the album.
Title track ‘Dolls of Highland’ opens acoustically but is then overlaid with the ragtime piano intro of ‘Eye of a Hurricane’. However, this time around the tempo is slowed down and transposed a few octaves lower. It acts almost as an album description and as a short Kyle Craft overture to ‘Jane Beat the Reaper’ which ties back in with the rollicking classic boogie-rock sounds before it.
Album closer ‘Three Candles’ slows down to complete its farewell to the Dolls of Highland. With pianos and keyboards omitted, it portrays the more sombre aspects of Kyle Craft’s journey despite each track conjured from similar emotions. Although mentioned at the start that we are carried off by the performer aspect of Kyle Craft and despite some clear influences, it is only what is happening through his own creativity and spirit that you understand how he has managed to pull it off without imitation.
Dolls of Highland is available on iTunes. Check the opening track 'Eye of a Hurricane' below: