Kyle Burnett – Alabama: From Clover To Crimson – Album Review
Alrighty y’all…let’s dig further into the music of Kyle Burnett here today. If you had a chance to check out the SBS Podcast yesterday, you had the opportunity to listen to the lead single “Harper Lee” from his debut record along with a bunch more of my thoughts – and if you haven’t yet, no panic – click right here to go to the show. We talked a bunch about how Kyle’s first full-length record takes over from where Sufjan Stevens left off with his 50 States project – and I owe the man an apology, because I’ve been reading the title of this record backwards since I’ve started listening to it! He’ll have to forgive me…I’m old enough to remember the old Tommy James hit called “Crimson And Clover,” and I suppose that’s just the order my brain naturally sees these words appear in, even when the words are sitting right in front of me in black & white. So truly Kyle, apologies on that from me to you, and to set the record completely straight here today, his debut solo-record is called Alabama: From Clover To Crimson. We’ll make it up to him…we always do, one way or the other…chances are you’ll hear me spin another Burnett song on our show again real soon, and I’ll get another crack at the details for ya. On the bright side, that’s why we always post the links to the pages of the artists & bands on our pages as well, cause who knows what I’m gonna say in the heat of the moment!?! I get names wrong all the time…usually not the details though. I own my mistakes whenever I make’em, and so there ya have it – we’ll right this wrong Kyle, one way or the other, no worries. I’m better in writing anyway – let’s check this record out.
Give this guy some major credit dear readers, dear friends…Kyle’s essentially on his own for the vast majority of what you’ll hear on Alabama: From Clover To Crimson, handling all the music you listen to, with the exception of a few guest-stars popping up along the way. Personally, I felt like he’s got one of his best on display right from the get-go with the weighty sound of “From Clover To Crimson” as the record begins…he takes this opening instrumental, and puts in a seriously compelling performance that pulls you right in to listen. There’s risk in what he’s done here and no denying that – “From Clover To Crimson” doesn’t come out punching you in the face with sound from the lefts & rights to get your attention…but like a great storyteller, Kyle’s able to keep us mesmerized with how this song unfolds, even without using a single word. For real – have a listen here for yourself, I’ll embed it below – “From Clover To Crimson” is wonderfully enticing…mysterious, curious…played at a pace that seems so natural and in the moment. Obviously, you’d expect that any cut you’re gonna hear on the record has been rehearsed & written & refined and all that – and there’s no question that this IS as well, of course – but it’s remarkable that it doesn’t really SOUND like it, without that being detrimental – you follow me? In knowing that Kyle’s taking on all the instruments here, clearly we know this isn’t all happening at once – but the feeling you get in listening to “From Clover To Crimson” sounds like it IS, and it’s highly effective. Great ideas in the parts he’s written and performed…the guitar is off-the-charts rad, and actually fairly subtle & subdued for the intensity of its tone, which is cool – the drums are solid, the bass is steady, the piano/keys is an essential ingredient…the slow building of this first track really hit the mark for me all-around. He’s even got a harmonica in the mix there for ya to add a bit more detail and character into the vibe of this initial impression…he’s taken his time with “From Clover To Crimson” and the sparkling mix of unique ideas and the stunningly distant vibes he’s got goin’ on works incredibly well. When those drums appear, the entire song moves even closer to us, yet still keeps a whole lot goin’ on way over in the distance too…I could see a few people going back & forth on that, but personally I dig how it sounds. To me, it’s clear Burnett puts a lot of details into the atmosphere every bit as much as he makes sure to keep ya entertained & engaged with lots on the surface for ya as well – “From Clover To Crimson” can’t help but make an impact & impression on ya…the confidently crisp snare snap alone should sell ya quick.
Does he become more of an acquired taste when the vocals enter the record on the second tune, “Wetumpka?” Yes. That’s fair to say. It’s also fair to say that if your idols & influences are people like Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, and Radiohead like you’ll find in Burnett’s bio online, that this rawer approach to the mic is as intentional as it is embraced. None of those legendary names & talents took the straight & narrow from point-A to point-B, so it’d kinda be strange to somehow expect that Kyle would either if these are the artists & bands he’s lookin’ up to. At the core of it all, you make the kind of music that Kyle makes pretty much expecting that polarizing reaction when it comes to the vocal aspect; and as I always like to remind ya when that word comes up – polarizing is a damn good thing. Indifference is what ya wanna avoid, and I don’t feel like people would ever feel like that in listening to Burnett’s music…they’ll have opinions of all kinds. Chances are, he’s ready for most of’em. Whereas I can slip right into the bass-line grooves and wandering guitars of “Wetumpka” and even dig on aspects of the vocals as well…I’m certainly objective enough to know it’s not the kind of vibe that automatically connects with everyone out there listening. Kyle’s gonna have to grapple with that a bit as those that have blazed the trail before him once did as well…but as they’ve ALL proven, it’s always worth the effort. The ears of the masses are continuously looking for the hooks they can quickly absorb without having to give it that much thought – but Kyle’s making music more for the artistic side of the spectrum; there definitely ain’t a single thing wrong with that whatsoever, it just tends to come with a few ups & downs in terms of what works best creatively & what doesn’t through the process of experimentation. Aside from Alabama: From Clover To Crimson, he’s got a seven track EP from 2020 called Vague Complaints, and a couple of noteworthy appearances in collaboration with others – give Burnett some more time & experience, and he’ll have his overall vision dialed in even more as the years go by. That doesn’t mean he’s gotta start bumpin’ out 4/4 beats and dazzling you with flashy hooks designed for the top-40 – I don’t think that’s the kind of artist that Kyle would ever even WANT to be…I’m simply saying that like all artists & bands, there are several stages of their evolution, and Burnett’s still got several more to follow. I really dig the way the guy plays guitar with such an impressively natural feel to it though, and that continually stood out to me through the haze and fog of this Radiohead-esque second cut as the most discernable difference in what made this a Kyle Burnett song, as opposed to anything else it sounds like.
The slick low-end grooves of “Decatur” made it a great choice as a lead-single in advance of the record coming out, and it makes for one of the more complete experiences you’ll find on album from start to finish. I still wouldn’t go nearly as far as to say Kyle’s about to go swimming in the mainstream with “Decatur,” but there is more accessibility in a track like this than you’ll find in the prior two beforehand. Like an underground Blues-meets-poetry session, “Decatur” has a wild raw energy that stays suppressed and controlled perfectly, like a smoldering fire where you can just see the haunting glow of the embers peek through. For what’s nearly a seven-minute track, I felt like Burnett delivered on his end and kept this cut engaging, tighter, and played with more purpose. Vocally, I get what he’s going for – I still think there’s work to be done there, but I’m not all that opposed to what I’m hearing now either – his low vocal vibes fit right into a cut like “Decatur” and the psychedelic tinge plays to his advantage. He’s giving ya personality…I think he’s still got a little more in the tank than he’s revealing, but I like where he’s going. “Decatur” really works with a dank rhythm and groove that feels like it comes with its own muted lighting…like you stumbled your way into an underground club off the side of an alley post-midnight, and this just happened to be what you found rocking onstage. I definitely wouldn’t complain – heck, I’d sit right down & listen intently…”Decatur” has that enticing creep & crawl to it that retains your attention naturally, and the grimy & gritty guitar he’s got rockin’ is guaranteed to get noticed for sure. That’s the thing about Kyle and the way he plays…dude can sing, and that works – but when you listen to him solo, that’s where his real poetry is to be found, note for note cool cats…100% creative freedom.
For those outside of Alabama, one of the most tangible tunes that’ll tie this record to the state itself is likely going to be “Harper Lee,” based around the timeless author who hailed from there directly. This also happens to be the song we played on the SBS Podcast the other day – and I highly recommend you head on over there to check it out by clicking here – it’s quite the tune overall. Kyle makes slow tunes really come alive in a very unique way…I have moments where I’m listening to the amount of space he uses to his advantage in the pace & structure, and it’s almost like you wanna tap the guy on the shoulder to make sure he knows it’s all still HAPPENING as you listen…like the dude’s so lost within the moment that you’d never be able to shake him out of it. Some of the very best music you’ll ever hear in your life is made just like that folks, make no mistake. “Harper Lee” really does become a defining & special moment of its own within this set-list – and Burnett’s enlisted some spectacular guests to ensure this song reached its full potential. Leona Bornemann & Alaina Joleen are essential here, to the nth degree – I love the way they sing alongside Kyle and their contrasting tones are a remarkable complement to each other. You’ve also got Angelo Gonzalez layin’ down the ukulele for ya as well, and Katja Sonnna on the bass. My notes here have three ns in Katja’s name – I honestly had no idea that was even a thing! Cool! Together, they make a genuinely mesmerizing magic together here…very old-school folk, in all the right ways…”Harper Lee” is a beautiful piece of writing from start to finish, and executed with a quaint & humble performance that puts the sweetness & uniqueness you wanna hear into every moment. From the ambient sound in the background, to the way this whole song sounds like you’re right around the fireside with Kyle & the crew…a track like “Harper Lee” should have no problem at all standing out to ya.
A song like “Allgood” is gonna have no issues making an impact either, though for just about the opposite reasons as “Harper Lee” did prior. Getting the amps fired-up and a growl in his voice, “Allgood” goes for a much more electrified vibe than the rest have so far by comparison…and channeling his inner Nick Cave, Kyle sinks right into the depths of this gritty tune. With more energy & electricity running through its veins, and coming directly after the softer sound of “Harper Lee,” it’s going to easily get the attention of listeners out there. As to whether or not it quite rises up to the caliber of the previous four cuts…I think the jury is more out on that one for me still. I always dig on listening to Kyle’s guitar, that much I can tell ya for certain – and I think there’s a largely accessible energy that comes along with “Allgood” that should have no problem drawing many people in as well. In some ways, it’s kind of got the vibe of what you’d figure The Dandy Warhols would sound like in their warmup before hitting the stage, finding their groove and locking into the moment…in others, it’s still very true to the artistically-inclined, avant-garde designs that many of Burnett’s tunes tend to have. It wanders around a bit in the ether in that sense…like “Allgood” is roaming around in search of its most defining & memorable hooks somehow…but I still maintain the majority of ya would dig on this cut. When Kyle does latch onto a pattern or a moment throughout “Allgood” that connects in that regard, he makes the most of each opportunity…they don’t always last that long, but he does find stuff that works.
The best advice I’ve got for Kyle, is that when he chooses to add vocals to his music, he’s gotta tap straight into the energy of the song and get as lost within it as he does when he’s playing his guitar. Sing with purpose my brother…like no one else out there is even listening, and just let’er rip; otherwise you can end up with moments like “Talladega” where we can feel that hesitation or mismatched energy a lot more. Burnett CAN sing…he’s already proven that several times on this album, and I think he’s aware that’s the spot he’s got the most opportunity to grow, evolve, and really find out what that voice of his can do…so we get what’s a bit more of an experimental moment in the way he approaches “Talladega.” He is on to the right thing here…he knows he wants to bring a different, jazzier energy to this track – now it’s all about just going for it, and making every note count. Stylistic choices are one thing, missing the mark by the 5% when you could get it to the full 100% with a bit more time is a whole other deal – as artists, we rarely ever hear the 95% of what’s going right, so much as the tiny things we feel like we could have done better. It’s early on in Kyle’s career – he’s got plenty of time to sort things out that way – right now, I’m impressed by the fact that he’s taking on a different vibe here and giving it a verifiable shot. It would be hard to be on a track with guest-star guitarist Sean Salazar and still be the main star of the show though, that I can confirm – where has THIS guy been all my life? What a gifted player! He lights up the fret-boards of his guitar with the best of’em y’all…great tone, amazing feel…it’s a huge highlight within “Talladega” and the main reason to return to it. I’ll be as real with ya as I always am – personally I felt like Burnett’s left a lot on the table when it comes to the potential of this song – it has the pieces to be one of his best, but it’s still a bit uneven as it stands right now. I look at it this way – even in circumstances where you feel like you’ve completely nailed the vocals, having them as the most dominant trait in a song is still going to shrink the rest of the music by comparison – and IF you’ve gone that route & we can hear every note & tone you sing more prevalently than the instrumentation, you definitely wanna make sure you’ve got your best into every syllable, because there’s nowhere to hide. In the case of “Talladega” to me, it’s a combination of both. I’ve gotta hold Burnett to the standards he’s already set along the way – that’s my job – and I feel like he’s just shy of the mark here in his vocals, in addition to feeling like the mix on “Talladega” could bring the music to the forefront a whole lot more. The ideas are strong, the hooks are arguably more memorable than most too – it just needs a polishing.
He’s created a bit of an uphill battle for himself in a few ways…energy-wise, length-wise. I enjoy much of “Battle House,” but I’d readily acknowledge it’s rocking with a similar slow-burning energy that we’ve kind of heard from Burnett at this point too, and at length considering the size of these songs. Do I think a track like “Battle House” or “Allgood” could be shortened up and become more effective as a result? For sure. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all about long songs…but they do have to really step up and find that stunning next-level to keep us locked in & our attention focused. “Battle House” has the advantage of a spellbinding & slow-tempo vibe that’s got its own hypnotic qualities to it – and I’d probably be all for it if this were the first example of a sleepier gear that we found on the record…but combined with a bunch of’em, it’s harder to say if the sum total of them all will equate to the excitement they could generate individually. I guess what I’m sayin’ is, Alabama: From Clover To Crimson is a heavy album y’all…it might move slowly, the sound might appear delicate & all…but there’s a whole lot of substance and ideas here that take a lot of brainwork to dig right into; as gentle as it can appear, it can also wear ya out a little. From the wearier vibes of songs like “Battle House” to the massive lengths to the cuts to come in the finale of this record, there’s no doubt that it takes some commitment & fortitude to stick with the whole set in one go…but sometimes in breaking up the experience, you can also come back to a tune like “Battle House” and appreciate other things it has to offer, like the piano coming in more around the four minute mark. It can also make it so that you can hear the whole volume of “Battle House” increased just a bit afterwards as well…so of course, it’s a fine line to walk. I’d be bringing the bass down a bunch on this track & probably the rest up to meet it more in the middle somewhere…bit low-end dominant here.
“Stay Awhile” is perhaps the most perplexing of the bunch to me. Half the time I listen to it, I’m fairly positive that it COULD be the best of the bunch with a similar polish recommended for “Talladega” earlier on…and then there’s a large part of me that’s just wondering what it is he’s up to over there exactly. We’re all music fans at the same time as being artists, presumably…and by that token, he’s gotta know that “Stay Awhile” is far too all over the map in trying to pinpoint what’s working for it. As much as I appreciate the distance in the guitar quite often – at the same time, I’m almost done playing games there too my friend – we consistently have these other elements up front in the mix that don’t feature the BEST parts of your skills, which are often relegated far more towards the background – so what gives? I ain’t gonna lie…tracks like “Stay Awhile” are the kind of tunes that tend to bring out my frustration a bit more, and I’ve gotta remind myself of how early it still is in the timeline of Kyle’s career. He COULD have something every bit as shimmering & smooth as a cut you’d hear from Cigarettes After Sex here…but he’s making things a bit more complex than he needs to at times in order to get there. To me, there’s about five or six quality ideas that he goes cruising right by in this song, almost like he doesn’t even realize they’re there…and other bands/artists would be building entire singles around’em. Like…right around the 4:30 mark…that one tiny melody on his guitar there – write a track around that, boom – hit song, I’m tellin’ ya. Alright…it’s probably not QUITE that easy, but you get where I’m going with this…these tunes might be slower in pace, but he’s rushing a little more than he needs to be when it comes to the potential his ideas contain. It’s about fluidity & giving the moment what it needs most; it’s not any kind of crime to dial things back and make them more simple when that’s what a song truly calls for. “Stay Awhile” needs more time in the incubation stage in order to become the amazing song that it could truly be…but somewhere between The National, Cigarettes After Sex, and Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, Kyle Burnett could very much carve out a name & niche for himself. He’s got guitar tones and notes in this track that are absolutely LOADED with irresistibly sweet sound – I think he’d benefit from drawing that out just 10% more overall if it’s possible, but I’d never dispute the fact that there’s something potentially very special buried deep into the core of this tune…just gotta mine it out.
Joined by his brother Kevin on guitar for “White Cedar,” together they add in a bit of a Post-Punk vibe into the moodiness of this hybrid tune. They’re doin’ well with what they’ve got here…I’ll be real with ya and say that I don’t think “White Cedar” is going to be the cut that goes on to set the world on fire, but they make the most they can of the material. I maintain Kyle’s just gotta be as confident on the mic as he is with his guitar and that’s gonna help smooth out a whole bunch of the obstacles in between his tunes and the listening ears out there. I’m not even saying the guy has gotta be 100% spot-on for tone or anything like that at all…but he’s got moments where you can feel he’s found the right energy for a lyrical line, and others where it seems to drop off when it’s needed most. Guitars are the main strength on this record for sure, and that holds true once again here on “White Cedar” as well once more – but what’s also true, is that each and every time, Kyle’s put forth a credible idea, or quite likely a whole bunch of them, per song…it’s asking a lot outta the guy to have taken on as much as he has, but at the same time, unless he’s got the record company breathing down his neck for that next release to come out & poking him in the ribs daily with a sharp stick to keep him movin’ – I think more time can be taken. He listens to music – I know he does, I can see the evidence of that in his bio online…now it’s all about finding the fluidity and knowing the material frontwards and backwards before hitting up the studio to push record. It still feels like vocally we’re making a few real-time decisions as he’s singing, not entirely sure of which part of the melody is going to work out, and even bracing himself at time for the results – pass or fail, I’m tellin’ ya my brother, if you give it everything you’ve got, you’ll sleep soundly every time.
Now…a seven-minute ask of today’s listener is just about two & a half times what they’re willing to spare these days…so there’s no doubt you can already see that length-wise, Kyle’s taking a huuuuuge risk with the final two cuts on his record taking up nearly eighteen minutes between them. The concern is pretty straightforward and plain – “Southbound” ain’t doin’ enough to justify the time, and that’s kind of all there is to it. What’s there is uneven & on shaky terrain to say the least…it’s the toughest song to identify what the idea holding this whole structure together even really IS…I’m just kinda hearing a whole lot of meandering this time around without any real direction of where it’s going…and that’s a more than a concern as well. Objectivity is the hardest lesson we learn in making music, especially when it comes to the material we make personally and are attached to ourselves. I get that it can be tough to leave some tunes behind – but by that same token, I also think most tracks jump out with a reason or two as to why they’ve been kept in the lineup, and I couldn’t find those inside of “Southbound.” That could possibly be me…maybe you’ll all hear this track and decide that I’m the crazy one, and if that’s the case, right on & all the more power to ya…turn it on up if that’s how you feel. By this point in the review, Kyle knows I’ve been nothing less that straight-up with him about how things have been turning out, but I’m still just one guy with an opinion. I again think of his heroes like Cave and Cohen…or artists I look up to myself like Tom Waits, or even Michael Stipe – how many countless times would these dudes have all been told they were completely crazy in pursuit of their art by some random dude across the internet or some local paper? Millions! Burnett’s as welcome to take or leave my opinion on his music as much as anyone else…all I’m saying is that, even when I haven’t always agreed with a melodic choice here & there, or something else in the instrumentation or the vocals, I’ve still always been able to give his ideas their justified credit. “Southbound” just doesn’t have that defining element to it that’s ever going to give it the opportunity to be memorable enough in my opinion…I’m not even saying that HAS to be the defining aspect of a song, but it’s definitely one that helps. I like this dude…but I gotta call it the way that I hear it…”Southbound” is probably the cut that the record could have possibly lived without.
It sure makes a dude cautious when heading into the final track, “Where The Mountains Begin,” and hoping that the variation will be revealed a bit more through Burnett’s music on this ten plus-minute cut. Once you get to about the three-minute mark, you’ll understand why I’m smiling as I write this. In a genuine case of be careful what you wish for, Kyle and his buddy Matteo guest starring on guitar get all kinds of weird & wild for a moment or two…practically to the point where it ain’t gonna make a whole lot of sonic sense to the average set of everyday ears tuning in. I look at it this way – I asked for it – this is what I’ve got; Kyle supplied the variation I was seeking out. Even my own brain has a hard time making sense of the onslaught of sound & energy that roars seemingly outta nowhere into this dusty final track…but would I want this madness instead of the near-flatline of “Southbound” beforehand? Absolutely, and twice on Sundays. The structure & dynamics have that much more to offer – I’d be crazy not to feel that way. Plus – what about the beauty in the piano solo around the seventh minute? Heck, I’d listen to this dude rock an entire piano album if it was going to sound like what you’ll find in “Where The Mountains Begin.” Does it warrant the full ten & a half-minutes of its length for the ideas it has? I mean…that’s more than one-third of the total time of a Weezer album in a single song y’all…but it does have more twists & turns, and an unpredictable design that at least makes a valid attempt at taking us somewhere as we listen. I don’t know that I could say it necessarily ALL works out in an accessible way, but once again, I can hear Kyle speedin’ right by about five to ten ideas other artists or bands would have worked their entire song or album around…most of’em comin’ from the piano in this final tune. He’s kinda tapping into that desolate Cracker-esque energy that you’d find pop-up on some of their Alt-Country tunes that felt like they were recorded out in the middle of the desert somewhere…tracks like “Where The Mountains Begin” have me wanting a glass of water before I end up dehydrating myself. At its most intense, it’s interesting, I’ll give it that…there’s no doubt about the fact that this last track DOES come alive in a multitude of ways in those moments of mayhem & musical madness…I’m probably more partial to the low-key elements of this final track, but that’s likely because I’ve got more options to choose from this time around. Right around the 6:25 mark is where my ears really start to perk up and pay that extra attention to “Where The Mountains Begin” – the piano that comes in to take over is pretty much exquisite by every definition, and makes you kinda wish there had been a whole lot more of that element in these tunes from the very start by the time it’s all over. It makes for a great part I & part II type feel…and that latter half is certainly well worth sticking around for – I think Kyle might have ended Alabama: From Clover To Crimson on my favorite singular moment for the instrumentation found on this record right in the last four minutes of “Where The Mountains Begin” – and that’s a decent note to go out on for sure. No doubt it’s gonna be extremely interesting to see & hear what this dude goes on to create over the next years to follow…I can’t guarantee it’s ever gonna be anything that fits in with the Top-40 crowd, but I feel like we can bet on it being completely unpredictable, and justifiable art.
Find out more about the music of Kyle Burnett at his page at Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KyleBurnettCreative
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