Kathryn Claire’s ‘Bones Will Last’ dwells on death a little longer
The sound of a stringed instrument is always a sad, almost forlorn experience. In movies, it previews a sense of loss and eventually careful rediscovery, the moment the leading character watches his precious world fall apart, then tries to figure out how to put the pieces back together.
Portland, Ore. musician Kathryn Claire pieces together her own documentary movie about the bones of mortality in the March 24 Bones Will Last. She premiered the title cut in the first official video the day before.
Claire applies her expertise on stringed instruments (violin, guitar) and raw vocals that often lay unsettled on the vibrancy of those instrument. She joined with fellow Portland musicians — Zak Borden (mandolin), Allen Hunter (upright bass), and Don Henson (piano) — for 10 compositions, some on vocals, some purely instrumental.
Her voice is clarity, whether it’s sung out loud or implied in the bones of the music. Her voice, as she sings on the fragrantly haunting “Sweet Chariot,” is “the breath that I keep before the exhale.”
Claire figuratively embodies, personifies, and humanizes the emotions felt on a stringed instrument: the sorrow, the regret, the passing, lost embers of fragile life.
In “Sweet Chariot,” the B side to her radio-friendly, emo-pop first cut, represents the balance of Claire’s human voice and humanizing string set (accompanied by the resounding resolve of another sad instrument, the piano, marching toward an irrefutable conclusion).
The songs on this new album are sad. But none more than “Sweet Chariot” — sung plaintively, descending and underscored with the foreboding wistfulness and certain wisdom of a closing chapter.
“Every day I practice my goodbyes… The truth is that I love you, that is why we’re here. Funny how it’s never been so clear… All the wars we’ve fought mean nothing in the end…,” Claire sings as if accepting the fact that we all die. She faces death head on, which can make for a very uncomfortable time.
The lyrics strike so many chords in listeners who’ve suffered the loss of loved ones and wait for their own time.
“In a literal sense, the title speaks to what we leave behind after we die; the remains of our body in the end are just our bones,” Claire explained in a press release provided by In Music We Trust. “But in a figurative sense, I wanted to consider the bones of our personality, of our creative work, of our heart: the essential things that last after everything else has died, decayed, and transformed. I like the idea that at the core, each of us [has] this essence, and as an artist, there is a core voice or aesthetic. I sought the ‘bones’ of my creative being through the creation of this album. I wondered how I would feel if this was my last album, if this was the last musical thing I left behind. I needed to make sure that I said and expressed everything I wanted.”
“Sweet Chariot” is probably the kind of song we all hear in our heads at a wake, silent and deadly, and that is the kindest review I could ever give.
The instrumentals play just as profoundly, perhaps more effectively, as if stepping lightly around the graves of the forgotten and the missed. “It Was Your Voice” and the opening instrumental, “Syringa/The Hallowed Halls,” mesmerize with a fetching ebb and flow intrinsic to the best on violin.
At times, the soundtrack of Bones Will Last seem steeped in too much grief, stuck in ballad mode. Even the peppy “Last Day,” featuring Claire zig-zagging her violin in “fits and starts,” loses impact from the sameness of the dreary mood and the predictable lyrical structure.
As dreary as the mood, Claire’s musicianship remains impressive. It should. She’s well versed in the classical music threaded throughout the tracks.
“Classical music is a part of my musical voice, but I haven’t really explored it for years,” she continued. “I was blessed to have a fantastic string/orchestra program in my hometown of Eugene, Ore. I grew up playing string quartets with my friends and playing some of the great symphonies with my peers. My parents, especially my mother, fostered a love of classical music, and I attended many classical music performances. I didn’t go on to study music in college or to play classical music professionally. I taught myself to play guitar in high school and started writing then. Later on, I fell in love with folk music and traditional fiddle music, and went down that path for many years. When everything got stripped down on this album and I started composing the string parts under the lyrical songs or putting harmony violin parts on the instrumentals, I was surprised by how connected to my classical roots I really am.”
As solid and haunting as her music is, I miss the small spark of the title track somewhere between “Last Day and “Thaw,” as the songs melded together in one, long goodbye in my head.
Kathryn Claire’s chamber-folk album leaves a gloomy, yet profound mark — best consumed alone when the lights are down and the leftovers put away.