A few months ago, I had to interview prospective interns for a music development agency. I was forced to ask that horribly bland question, “What’s your favorite type of music?” and though I won’t say I’m surprised, I did get one answer more than any other: “Anything but country.” This is clearly a product of the direction that mainstream country has gone, but let’s be fair to alt-country and the underground musicians that keep alive the real art of the genre: country is not dead. Florida native Katie Grace Helow has created a dark and compelling alt-country record with emotional depth, proving not all country is bad.
Past Lives is Katie Grace Helow’s sophomore album, following a more acoustic effort, titled On Time & the Ocean. Her debut was gorgeous in its own right, but her new record has turned up the intensity in every way. The instrumentation is somber, yet powerful, creating the perfect tone for Helow’s commanding voice. The album is comprised of ballads that are world weary, inspired by real life experiences that Helow only felt comfortable sharing in song. The opening track, “Savior or Sin“ features the widest range of Helow’s vocals on the record, which admittedly never reaches any notable highs, but rather has a remarkable depth.This is Helow’s signature sound, one that sets her apart from whatever stereotypical female country singer that you may be thinking of. Though the vocals in “Left For Dead,” the following track, are subtler, they are still just as powerful. This actually could be said about most tracks on the album; her voice is simply impressive.
Helow hasn’t completely abandoned her acoustic sound, with some simpler tracks in the middle of the album. No matter what the backing instrumentation is, whether it be a full band or her singular guitar, Helow still manages to capture your full attention. And I also really appreciate an artist that doesn’t compromise with “radio length” tracks, four minutes and under. A long track is the hallmark of a talented songwriter, and Helow has this in spades. “Scorpion” is an enduring odyssey at seven minutes long, but it has some of the most soothing guitar work on the record. The same can be said of “Live Wire,” though the backing vocals are what haunt in that track. Helow’s good friend Zach Lever contributes to the harmonies throughout the album, and complements the rest of the record perfectly.
When analyzed, Past Lives has all the elements of a talented indie artist. Let’s not make assumptions just because it’s got the word country in it.