An absolute stunner hits this week from Stella Kola, the duo of Beverly Ketch (Jow Jow, Weeping Bong Band) and Robert Thomas (Sunburned Hand of the Man, Dalthom). Now, given the pairs respective roots, along with the fact that half of the Northeast’s experimental set is on board, the first few strains that filter out of the speakers come as a surprise. The album is steeped, not in noise and dissonance, but in the fragrant, captivating folk of Linda Perhacs, Judee Sill, Karen Dalton, and Bridget St John. The latter is perhaps the most apt, as the record evokes Song for the Gentle Man, bolstering Ketch’s songs with an array of instrumentation from friends, including Wednesday Knudsen’s Flute, P.G. Six on harps, various keys, and guitar, Gary War on synth, Jen Gellineau on viola and violin, and Willie Lane and L. Gray on guitar among others.
The family affair feeds into the album’s charms. Like many of the ‘60s folk records that form its foundations, the feeling of community and camaraderie inform the album’s warmth. The players aren’t merely studio hires, but an accomplished set of friends who’ve added their own air to the album’s roster of entrancing folk. The record instantly becomes the kind of grail that collectors seek out, an indelible album that weaves its bittersweet spell from the first notes. The songs edge into the Fairport/Pentagle territory with allusions to Beggar’s, Kings, Dark Damsels, and Tarot, but Ketch and Thomas lace the songs with more than just the heavy fog of English ‘60s. The best records from that era also carried with them an inherent sadness and Stella Kola’s songs wash over the listener with a beautiful woe. It’s early in the year, but it’s hard to see an album, especially a debut, capturing the heart as hard as this one. This is an essential record.
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