Kyle Craft’s ‘Dolls of Highland’

If you were to google Kyle Craft right now you’d get heaps of links to reviews praising Dolls of Highland. So why are we adding our voice to that mountain? Because it’s a really freakin’ good album. We pass through quite a few debuts, so we shouldn’t be that taken back when one surpasses all expectations. Yes, we know Craft has previous band work. But this is a solo work that is a right hook of Southern grace and a left haymaker of New York inspired glam. If that combo doesn’t excite you, check your pulse.

Dolls of Highland feels like going through the stages of grief at times. There’s definitely some denial. You better believe there’s some anger. A little bit of bargaining is there. Depression is for sure, but a lot of times those lows sound as upbeat as the highs. And of course, the acceptance comes in its own particular form. What does it all steam from? The relationship that inspired album opener “Eye of a Hurricane” mixed with a long journey that took him from Louisiana out to Portland to Louisiana again for starters. A story like this, therefore, has to start with a statement. Cue the honky-tonk piano.

“Eye of a Hurricane” is cut from the cloth of the love affairs Faces and Elton John had with the music of the American South. The storm of this song is swirling around in an eddy of emotion and uncertainty. One thing that Craft will gladly admit to, but not in an arrogant way, is his voice is pretty dang powerful. It stretches across every expanse from beginning to end. You can hear it on the classic love tale that is “Berlin,” about a person who is nicknamed after the creative mecca of Germany. He knows he’s not the type of guy Berlin could fall for, so he slumps off back into the background. The more we think about it, the more we realize it’s about a special type of affection. Either way, it’s rambunctious and infectious, even though it’s thematically a bit of a downer.

Seamlessly transitioning between tracks is a fine art on the album. The effects pedals and harmonicas of “Balmorhea” get you emotionally invested. He freely sticks his hand out to say he’s there for the muse before pulling it back ever so slightly to clarify the offer stands, unless they’re hiding from him. We can picture several singer/songwriters of the 60s getting jealous, and while that may not have been his intention, he puts so much of himself into each track that we can’t help but feel that way. Heck, even coming off what feels like the birth of alt-country rock in “Lady of the Ark,” Kyle Craft sends out glorious, hi res, trumpets that kind of sulk on “Gloom Girl” without a hitch. Even with some sullenness at times, things are still upbeat enough. Major waves are there, but you never get a pure crash.

Through it all, you can’t keep a good man, or a man made out of rock ‘n’ roll, down. Claps and an irresistible urge to move your feet have you kicking back your chair on “Future Midcity Massacre.” He observes someone who knows how to have a hell of a time without having to put too much effort into it. Said person is now free to have the time of their life, but everything is cool because so is he. This swagger continues in all of its Southern glam glory on “Black Mary,” a song that struts through the sidewalks of Main Street while dreaming of the big city. It’s a tale of someone born just a bit at the end of the scene who refuses to let it go, and that person completely owns it because why not?

To go back to what we mentioned earlier, the final two tracks, “Jane Beat the Reaper” and album closer “Three Candles,” feel like catharsis has been at least stepped towards, even if it hasn’t been achieved. Lyrically, “Jane…” seems like an adult going through a complete meltdown, and nothing can eliminate that pain right now. And this hell might ease itself into a purgatory, but it’s nothing a bit of a commotion can’t temporarily suppress. It’s no wonder then that “Three Candles” sounds like it’s starting to pack up the equipment. While not sullen, it’s definitely a little tired. Sure, this song might be the epitome of stepping out into the dark alone before heading home, but it seems to make peace as well. Taking that first step is really all that matters when all is said and done.

As we get closer to the midpoint of the year, there are very few albums that we would say are in contention with Dolls of Highland for Best of 2016. Give a listen to “Eye of a Hurricane” and “Pentecost,” a track so good that we’re having trouble finding the words for it, below. After you do that, you’ll want to head over to the Sub Pop Records store to hear it all for yourself.

29.04.2016 / By Joey Smith