A stunning and emotionally potent debut album from Midwestern singer-songwriter Kiely Connell.
On the cover of Kiely Connell’s debut album “Calumet Queen” is a drawing of her wearing a beauty queen tiara with the spikes forming the outline of the Chicago skyline and the rushing Calumet River behind her, charitably colored green. There’s a lot of symbolism in this drawing and in the title track itself. Now based in Nashville, Connell grew up next to the west branch of this river in the Rust Belt city of Hammond in northwest Indiana, a stone’s throw from the Illinois border and less than half an hour from Chicago. The Calumet River runs about 13 miles from the more heavily industrial Gary through cities like Hammond to Lake Michigan on Chicago’s south side. It is cleaner than it was forty or so years ago, thanks to ongoing cleanup and rehabilitation efforts, but after over a century of industrial and agricultural damage, much of it is still a polluted mess being monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency. That riverbed mud that she sings about running through her mother’s veins is being painstakingly removed or capped over. Calling someone The Calumet Queen is a striking metaphor for being a tough survivor, outlasting everything destructive thrown at her and remaining an uncontained force of nature.
From the first country-inspired indie-folk song Connell and her collaborator guitarist Drew Kohl create an entire world populated with scrappy characters, shrouded in a frequently dark emotional atmosphere, often with only acoustic guitar and an occasional whisper of harmonica, pedal steel, keyboards, mandolin, and possibly the most understated Nashville percussion in recent memory. Her versatile, mature voice is downright superb. She has a soulful wail, a quieter, world-weary growl, and expressive country yawp. With emotional potency she sings about failed relationships, hardship and struggle, anxiety, the lure of alcohol as well as the painful flipside of being involved with an active alcoholic (‘Clear My Mind’), numbing escapism through sex with a stranger (‘Slow n’ Low’), the depths of depression, the spooky atmosphere of Deep South bayou country (‘Something Evil in the Water‘), and defiantly choosing to move forward in life without any expectation of improvement.
On‘Turning Tricks’ Connell weaves the tragic backstory and inner dialogue of a prostitute yearning to leave her profession. Her description of struggling with a hardcore depressive episode is chillingly vivid on ‘Blues That Really Burn’: “When will I reclaim the strength I fought so hard to win?/When will I be the woman I once was?” ‘Nobody’s Business But Mine’ echoes the self-reliant grit of Bessie Smith’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do’: “I know Jesus and He knows my kind…If I look like I’ve been pulled through the ringer/It ain’t nobody’s business but mine.” ‘Wasting My Time’ is a powerful, angry but resigned song about the end of a disappointing relationship with a lover. It reminded me of what writer Anne Lamott once said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
The final song ‘Disappear’ is part horrific nightmare, part Celtic-sounding prayer about one’s last moments and fear of existential annihilation. It brings to a close an astonishingly good and gratifying piece of work. Like the indomitable river she’s based her life’s metaphor on, after this amazing album I suspect nothing will get in Kiely Connell’s way from here on out.