Written by: Dave Cantrell
It may have been one of the first things you wanted but it was one of the last things you might have expected: a spanking new Kitchens of Distinction album, called Folly, just released in late September on 3 Loop Music. If you’re a cut-to-the-chase kind of reader, I’ll just say it straight off the top – it’s as much the spiraling, slicing, heartfelt marvel you’d hope it to be. This was not a given. Not because of any liability particular to KoD but simply because projects of this nature have a habit of not always working out so well. In this case, however, as much due the organic, unforced way this album came together (see interview) as the native talents involved, there was really very little worry that the end result would be anything less than memorable. There was a tacit understanding, an inviolably held contract between band and fan, that principle songwriters Patrick Fitzgerald and Julian Swales, along with drummer Dan Goodwin, wouldn’t bother bringing it forward were it not up to the rather sublime standard established during the band’s checkered heyday.
That heyday spanned the late 80’s, early 90’s and spawned the enduring delicacies Strange Free World, The Death of Cool, Love Is Hell and the sometimes maligned but personally beloved Cowboys and Aliens, not to mention a slew of 12″‘s that often captured as much attention as the LPs, not least Elephantine and Quick As Rainbows. As to that word ‘checkered,’ Kitchens of Distinction, emerging today, would seem a sure bet. Trembling cascades of effortlessly gorgeous guitar, rhythms that build and pull and gently pummel, inspired melodies in which launched flights of inner turmoil tumble and soar, all couching lyrics of unsurpassed honesty, literateness, and an unforced élan that encompass love and devotion and loss and sadness but somehow always manage to massage the heart with joy. That those lyrics neither flaunt nor, in the least, shy away from the singer’s homosexuality would, today, be mostly welcomed to the point of being a non-issue. It’s all just love, of course, as it should be. But now is not 1991. Despite the flailing hedonism endemic to the grunge years, we are still talking well over twenty years ago, and the fact the band first emerged at the (sorry) fag-end of the Reagan years should provide sufficient perspective. ACT UP had only just begun acting up and gay marriage was legal exactly nowhere. Add that then-abrasive subtext to a couple of key career mistakes – culpability shared between label(s) and band, the details seldom interesting – and the promise intrinsic in the music itself was fatally muzzled, in its usual heartless manner, by circumstance. No matter how stop-you-in-your-tracks cathedral beautiful, how genuine and modestly spectacular their songs were, neither that nor any amount of stylish, eye-catching album covers could overcome the tangle of obstacles put in their way and in the summer of 1996 Kitchens of Distinction called it a day.
But you know how it is. Once besotted one doesn’t just let go and move on. When a Fitzgerald-helmed band named – no surprise – Fruit appeared with a pounding, frightening track on a Volume compilation later in ’96, we were deservedly thrilled (news never reached me that they’d actually put an album out – UK-only on One Little Indian in 1997 – so imagine my reaction when I found a Hark At Her CD in a dim Portland record store five years back). When Patrick switched gears and identities with the Stephen Hero releases beginning in 2002, we maybe missed the lushly-faceted Kitchen dynamics but were still much gratified to have that voice and that sensibility serenading us in our living rooms, on our iPods. By the time the aughts passed behind us and headed into the two thousand teens any idea of KoD returning to the studio intact and revitalized was something only the most benighted or hopelessly delusional would even pause to consider. But life is nothing if not a big bag of surprises and sometimes, if a little too rarely, they’re even good ones. With that in mind we welcome Folly, so named because the very prospect of the many other groups reforming in the last X number of years had always struck both Patrick and Julian as exactly that. An in-joke that turned itself inside out, the results are nothing short of fabulous.
From the explicit, articulate, aching tribute to a love undone by death that opens the record (“Oak Tree”), Patrick’s voice as lucent and unbending as ever but now with a rich mahogany patina, Julian in a splendor of layers chasing ecstasy and despair over the horizon, to the Bowie-shadowed, scrapbook-come-alive of “Japan To Jupiter,” glam-tastic sheets of yearning and primping bedroom fantasy, the imagery an adolescent snapshot printed inside Fitzgerald’s head, to “The Most Beautiful Day”‘s slowed, semi-cinematic, almost hymnal swoon that ends the record, guitars crying at the full modest wonder of it all, the singer’s voice close to cracking with the sheer abundance of a single moment, rivaling in spirit Wallace Stevens on his knees marveling at a blade of grass, we’re given over every second to just that sound, those textures, the sweep and sway of emotion that we remembered but wouldn’t have dared expect even if we had considered a Kitchens of Distinction album in 2013. I don’t mean to sound intemperate but Folly tends to bring that out every time I listen. I’d forgotten, in the thrum of life ongoing, how innately animate the sound of this band can make you feel and now here it is again, flooding me in these lavish waves, this eloquent effervescence coursing through my bloodstream, I may have difficulty sleeping tonight.
Unbridled yet skillfully constructed (constructed with painstaking care, in fact), Kitchens music has always been about architecture, that anchored-to-the-ground, soaring-into-the-sky aspect of it, elaborate but functional, full of seductive contours, bold through-lines, calmly-appointed spaces inside to rest and breathe. In this sense, Folly‘s best-named song is probably “Extravagance,” the band’s tribute to the outlandish and extraordinarily wealthy Man Ray muse (and so very much more) Marchesa Luisa Casati, walking her cheetahs along the canals of Venice to Fitzgerald’s prowling Hooky bass, Goodwin’s concussive rhythmic splash, Julian’s volley of guitar glissandos lighting overhead like the moon’s reflections sparkling high off the palazzi walls. Yes yes, I know, this is all a bit, well, extravagant, but aside from the fact it’s perfectly accurate it’s also the case that this is what happens when led into a state of unexpected astonishment. Only the tremulous “Disappeared,” an ode to the jealousy and unspeakable images our minds concoct when a lover doesn’t come home some night, feels in need of a greater dimensionality and even it has power enough in it to make a part of the heart start quivering.
Though never wanting for an absorbing humanity, the songs this time around are particularly steeped in pathos and the inevitable vulnerabilities that come with aging. Mortality and its shortcomings, somewhat bluntly, stalk much of this record, in no small part due to Patrick’s ‘day job’ as a practicing physician and his own struggles with ill health that led to a kidney transplant in 2008. And so the slightly surreal, bio-Dorian Grayism of “Wolves/Crows,” a man paid back and fiercely for his, ahem, folly, the arrangement, as if to reinforce, hammering forward at a deliberative pace. And so “No Longer Elastic,” an elegiac, waltzing lament wherein, more or less, the mirror asks not to be looked at lest every creeping flaw announce itself and loudly. And so the utterly lovely “Tiny Moments Tiny Omens,” its sad sweeps of fatalistic acceptance reminiscent of – and just as enveloping as – the Wild Swans’ 2011 masterpiece The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years, the music here paradoxically chipper, hope alive even out there at the final edge.
That the writing on this and all of Folly displays an incomparably elegant, empathic intelligence likely needs no mention as anyone with even the skimpiest working knowledge of Patrick’s lyrics will assume that. Same applies, with similar adjectives, to the music itself, the bodies of the songs replete with all the rattling majesty that snakecharmed us in the first place back in the One Little Indian years. What’s startling is the verve, the drive, the energy, the command of material and its execution. Very rare is the band that can return from an absence this lengthy with work this sorted and powerful. The aforementioned Wild Swans managed it, as did the Distractions, and now we add to that select list the Kitchens of Distinction. Folly? Hardly.