Kris Delmhorst - Cars

Seeing as I was born just as the first George Bush was wrapping up his presidency, my knowledge of The Cars— their music, their style, their influence—was somewhat limited. I vaguely remember stumbling across their first record in the glove box of my father’s Jeep Cherokee, probably while I was looking for Joan Osborne. But I, like many, remember that iconic cover: a wide-smiling woman, her neck rested on the wheel, her arm extended out of frame.

And then I heard that Kris Delmhorst was tapping into the well that is The Cars catalog to record a covers CD, and my interest was piqued. Surely I’d heard their hits without having known them, and I expected many of the choruses to sound vaguely familiar— lines I’d heard while in line at Wal-Mart or too-drunk at a cousin’s wedding. What I wasn’t expecting, what I don’t think anyone was expecting, was for the fabulous Kris Delmhorst to totally re-invent these songs on her latest release, simply titled CARS.

You might not recognize it in Delmhorst’s original material, but it seems that The Cars had more of an influence on the folk songstress than anyone expected. In the press release for the new debut, there’s a lovely little story about Kris coming across Heartbeat City in Brooklyn during the summer of 1984 and finding herself “defenseless against intricate layers of pop hooks.” This defenselessness, and Delmhorst’s evident admiration of the new-wave masters, is ever present on this record.

For me, CARS is all about deconstruction. But this deconstruction extends beyond the simple untangling of complicated synth melodies. Delmhorst masterfully reinterprets songs that, it’s no great leap to say, aren’t necessarily in her wheelhouse. We’ve all come to love Kris for her soothing voice, her poetic lyricism. But on CARS, we get to see her incredible control over concept, while simultaneously having the time of her life in the studio. What I mean to say is, you can hear Kris Delmhorst smiling in every song.

Tracks like “You Might Think” and “Shake It Up” stay more or less faithful to the original recordings, but the folk/Americana entry point into these songs make the familiar unfamiliar in the most magical way. On other tracks, Delmhorst reverts to her roots and trades the highly-produced synth beats that often muddied the originals for lush arrangements that feature the dreamiest studio band ever, a veritable who’s-who of the New England music scene. Top-notch musicians like Dinty Child, Laura  Cortese, Rose Polenzani, Jennifer Kimball, Rose Cousins, Anne Heaton, Jefferson Hamer, and Mark Erelli help Delmhorst make these standards her own. This brilliance is at its best on a track like “Magic,” the acoustic arrangement so sparse and inviting that it’s hard to believe it’s not a Kris Delmhorst original. Another favorite is Delmhorst’s take on “Why Can’t I Have You,” a haunting ballad with screeching guitars and the softest yearning in her vocals.

But every track is a keeper, a gem, a hit. The whole record is. Some twenty years have passed since The Cars first released these songs, but this record has never felt more timely. Kris Delmhorst brings new life to these songs, and her fresh take is a warm welcome.

To preview songs and to purchase CARS, go to www.krisdelmhorst.com.

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