Album Review: Kaia Kater, 'Grenades'

by Kim Ruehl (@kimruehl), Folk Alley

In these days of single-song downloads, tackling a concept album with artistic aplomb can be a bit of an undertaking.

Kaia Kater’s latest, Grenades, is both concept album and deep dive into her own personal world. Focused on a search for identity, Kater spent several months in Granada—a tiny Caribbean island nation from where her father fled for Canada at the age of 14. How and why he landed in Montreal, where Kater was then born and raised, has always been a pressing question. Her musical answer is peppered with her father’s voice recalling scenes from the war and his migration with some mix of trauma, relief, and good humor.

Sonically, Grenades sits somewhere between Aimee Mann and Laura Veirs, with Kater’s languid, emotional vocals accompanied by long tones, Kater’s clawhammer banjo serving more frequently as percussion than primary accompaniment.

But thematically, the album goes much further than all of that, in musicality, emotion, intellectual curiosity, and nuance. There are too many layers to unpack in a brief album review, but it should suffice to say that Kater went all-in with her search for meaning, pecking at it from every angle—from a plucky French-language tune about misery (“La Misere,” which she wrote to a Grenadan melody she pulled from the Emory Cook collection at the Smithsonian) to the cultural anthropology of “Meridian Ground” and the cathartic emotionalism of “Poets Be Buried,” where our narrator seems to transform from grenade to cannonball.

Indeed, the imagery of war is strung throughout the album, with each song feeling like another revelation Kater can hurl at the version of herself who didn’t yet know these things. It’s a convenient literary device, and no doubt part of her father’s past that she sought to understand not only through the music but also through the inclusion of his voice and her decision to head to Grenada in the first place.

Kater writes in the liners that, “This album is … a self-portrait of an artist exploring her past, present, and future. There are visions of pain, of war, and of resentment and anger. But there are also visions of life, of youth, and of plucking oneself out of the muck to look up at the sky.”

Indeed, she wrote the songs during a winter in Toronto and a spring in St. George’s, Grenada, straddling her two home countries with an artistic ease that is far greater than one may have imagined listening to Nine Pin. That album was a solid statement, but now we know Kater is capable of this. And Grenades is tremendous, a certain contender for folk album of the year.

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Grenades is available now via Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and at iTunes and Amazon.com.

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