It’s a good thing that Andrea von Kampen didn’t win NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2015, though she was a finalist. She’s better than that.
For the Nebraska-raised singer-songwriter, her new full length album That Spell from Fantasy Records and out August 6th, Andrea von Kampen chooses the water; she chooses a genteel beauty over any commercial bombast; she chooses an even-handed sadness as a shine rather than polished overproduction.
The wistful fiddle in “Carolina” says as much as any pop production overlays in modern music, but von Kampen compliments it with compact lyrics, lyrics with a poetic yearn for an area and era that could be long gone. It’s not a surprise that the Brian Wilson-penned “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” snuggles right next to all of von Kampen’s originals.
The guitars sound like harps at times, which render von Kampen’s voice to angelic, though measured in a way to keep it from being overdone. The background harmonies are subtle — so slight with reverb that it’s easy to get lost in each song itself rather than have anything audibly jump into the way of the message. The minimalist approach will be called “folk,” which is fine if all you know of folk is Taylor Swift’s recent releases. Instead, the production here uses von Kampen’s voice as the centerpiece. The horn on the titular “That Spell” reacts; it doesn’t lead or intrude. A piano echoes the notes that von Kampen hits. No electric guitars appear. That Spell is a soundtrack album, be it to a summer night or to a movie.
The guitar pull offs and hammer ons to begin and guide “Celilo” is as if Neil Young fronted a much more regretful Stray Gators and decided against the pedal steel. It works. The poetry is not just in the music, though. The lyrics, particularly from the brief opener “Of Him I Love Both Day and Night,” even sound as though they could be poetry set to music.
It’s only “The Wait” with its slightly more uptempo strumming — though not by much — and tasteful Fender Rhodes that almost feels out of place. Perhaps that’s more to do with the melody, one that harkens back to the ubiquitous Sarah McLachlan tune “In The Arms of an Angel.” It’s okay, though. Andrea von Kampen doesn’t tread in those waters much with That Spell. Hearing these songs more than once only reveal that these waters are deeper than that.
“Magdalene,” which closes the album in a perfect circle, creates a beautiful problem for listeners who will be unable to hear when the record starts and stops. The song itself notes that history is wrong from time to time. Yes, it is. NPR didn’t know what they had in 2015.
Photo Credit: Mark Cluney