Kate Maki – On High
On High is Kate Maki's U.S. debut, but it's actually her third album. The Sudbury, Ontario-based singer-songwriter, whose folksy ruminations have earned her a following in her home country, released Confusion Unlimited in 2003 and The Sun Will Find Us the next year, but neither is available south of the Canadian border. Shortly afterwards, she met Giant Sand frontman Howe Gelb and made a small appearance on his album ‘Sno Angel Like You in 2006. Ostensibly returning the favor plus heavy interest, Gelb signed Maki to his OW OM Recordings label, and co-produced her third album, On High, which was recorded in five days with a small band of friends. Gelb himself plays guitar on almost every song, and he even duets with her on "Don't Look Down".
Maki and Gelb make a fine match. Along with co-producer Dave Draves, he creates a dusty, twilit setting, full of junkyard guitars and ghost-town saloon pianos, and she settles in nicely, penning a collection of songs that use few words but are never simple. Maki, who teaches French and science when she's not touring, is rarely showy in her songwriting, and she can sell a song with only her voice and an acoustic guitar. "Wanted Ads" and "We Are Gone", two of the album's standouts, are delicate wisps of melody that would crumble under one more instrument. Occasionally Maki overreaches, as on the pseudo-philosophical "Beyond the Sun", and she can be cloyingly precious, as on "Badminton Racquet", a duet with Royal City's Nathan Lawr that sounds like a Juno outtake in the worst way: "We keep together like a badminton racquet/ Bouncing little birdies everywhere." Even when she strays, Maki's voice, which recalls early Suzanne Vega, remains delicate and invested with personality, often fading at the ends of words to intensify the sense of intimacy.
For better or worse, Gelb is just as formidable a presence on these songs as the woman whose name graces the album cover. He contributes some curious flourishes here and there, such as the ruptured electric guitar on "Highway" and the echoey old piano on "White Noise", which sounds like it's mic'ed on the floor to capture the workings of the pedals. Occasionally, he threatens to overshadow her, and On High begins to sound more like another Gelb project than a Kate Maki album. She sounds a little lost on the over-orchestrated "Beyond the Sun", which eventually descends into meandering piano and organ solos. But generally such inventiveness is welcome, especially when it results in a song like "To Please", which scrambles along on a modified jugband beat while Gelb and steel guitar player Dale Murray perform solos by blowing on bottles. It sounds completely different from anything on the album, yet its spiritedness sounds like the flipside of Maki's slow, sad songs, revealing her willingness to stray from the typical strictures of this brand of folksy roots music.