Album Review – Kiely Connell’s “Calumet Queen”

photo: Kurt Ozan

It is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to Hammond, Indiana-native Kiely Connell and her debut record Calumet Queen that will send shivers down your spine and prick the very deepest regions of your soul with its sincere and distinct expressions of an unburdening heart. Exquisitely sung and written, delightfully sparse in aspect, it yearns to leave you with an unsettled feeling, and succeeds in a way that is peculiarly comforting.

When you think of desolation and loneliness, maybe you picture the desert of West Texas or Death Valley in California, or the abandoned hollers of Appalachia where the steep ridges only allow the sun to reach the valley floor one or two hours a day. But despite the dense population, the Rust Belt might rival them all in loneliness with the husks of industrialization piercing the skyline and slowly corroding beneath a gray sky, spreading a sense of hopelessness and abandonment just as palpable as upon any other landscape.

It was along the muddy and industrialized Calumet River of northern Indiana that Kiely Connell first learned about heartbreak and sorrow, and started putting these feelings into into song. Now in Nashville, she didn’t leave those ghosts behind her, she embraced them in the 10 songs of this homespun, but globally appealing work of striking songcraft.

Her voice is what strikes you first, confident and expressive, yet burdened with emotion and full of character like the contours of an elder’s face. For some it might be too rich or distinct upon initial exposure, but after warming to it, Kiely Connell’s voice will call to you with appeal. Though you want to pin her voice down as similar to some of your other favorite singers, it’s more accurate to describe it as an amalgam of some of the best voices to grace country and roots music all integrated into one.

Some of Kiely Connell’s compositions are pleasantly simple, whether it’s the snapshot of a diner on “Caroline’s Corner Cafe,” or sulking on a barstool in Memphis on “Nobody’s Business But Mine”—both of which are distinctly country songs at their root, and would work as such like many of the album’s tracks if it wasn’t for the more understated instrumentation.

But when Connell sets her mind on touching on something deeper like in the album’s final song “Disappear,” this is when she presents music that feels indispensable, especially when coupled with the unique character of her vocal tone. Though there may not be any specific effort here to capture a dark or Gothic mood, in many songs, this is certainly the result from how piercing these stories of hardship and heartbreak are, and the ravenesque aspect of her voice. This music is haunted by the sorrow that inspired it.

Though there may be a bit more going on in these songs than your ear initially picks up on, it’s fair to ponder how these songs would render with a full set of musicians behind them and a more robust production approach. A few of the songs seem to outright call for this. Nonetheless, you also have to respect the philosophy of putting the songs and Connell’s voice first and out front, especially when the results are what they are on this album.

You also get the sense this is just the start for Kiely Connell. With a voice and a writing acumen as strong as this, starting out so stripped down gives her somewhere to go, including more embellished versions of these same songs if she chooses to go in that direction in the future.

But even as presently constructed, Kiely Connell and Calumet Queen constitute a remarkable and auspicious debut that you can see initiating a strong musical legacy as it unfolds into the future.

8.5/10

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