Kristina Stykos, Horse Thief

Album review by Dan Bolles, music editor, Seven Days

 August 19, 2015

Contrary to what L.L.Bean might have you believe, rural life is not all horse-drawn sleighs, crackling fires and double-knit sweater vests. Especially for those who purposefully live in the most remote nether regions of the state, the idyllic splendor and serene isolation of the Green Mountains comes at a terrific cost. It's a hardscrabble existence marked as much by backbreaking labor and frostbitten fingers as by beauty and solitude.

 Having lived off the grid in northern Vermont for decades, songwriter Kristina Stykos knows this well. That delicate balance between the harsh and the heavenly has characterized her music, both sonically and thematically, dating back to the early 1980s. But it has never emerged as so fundamental to Stykos' writing, playing and singing as it does on her latest record, Horse Thief.

 Setting aside specifics for the moment, there is a hard-earned, rough-hewn quality to every nook and cranny of the record. It emerges most obviously in Stykos' weary vocal rasp, which sounds something like Iris DeMent after a half bottle of Jack Daniels and a few Marlboros. It's evident in subtler ways, too. Self-produced and recorded at her own Pepperbox Studio in Chelsea, Horse Thief is perhaps the most vibrant-sounding record in Stykos' voluminous canon. But that bright sheen obscures the tumult embedded in her unflinching songwriting and stormy arrangements.

 On the opening title track, Bow Thayer's bojotar — that's half banjo, half resonator guitar — slithers around Stykos' moody acoustic arpeggios. Meanwhile, Patrick Ross' simmering fiddle lurks in the background, waiting to strike. The effect is ominous, crafting a perfect framework for Stykos' rustic tale.

 "It's Over" is a late-night confessional, presented like a one-way conversation between Stykos and the dying embers of a fire. Here, she ruminates with smirking honesty on a fading love, finding bitter irony in the notion that time, which should serve as a foundation for love, is precisely the thing that drives the wedge deeper. "Now, the remnants of my face / Can't make him feel that way / It's all that I was hoping for / It's all that's given way," she sings, her words dripping with lament.

 That the things we build and that build us up are also the things most likely to cause us to crumble is a central concern on Horse Thief. Some variant of that theme runs through tender tracks such as "Heart in the Wreckage" and "By the Minute," as well as fiery outings including "Let It Run" and "Talk to Me." And it's driven home, albeit wordlessly, on the elegiac instrumental closer "Remembering."

 Horse Thief is an examination of love and aging inspired and informed by a lifetime spent both battling and embracing the harshness and isolation of rural Vermont. Like love, Stykos' unforgiving wilds both require and return strength. But they will also, like love and time, exact that very strength from you. It is a complex idea, brilliantly explored on the songwriter's latest, and likely greatest, record.


My first engineer and producer – Kristina Stykos

Album review by Simon Brooks, storyteller

June 27, 2015


What feels like a million years ago, but was in fact 2005, I had this crazy idea to record a CD of stories. I had no idea how to do it and wanted to do it right. I asked a few friends, some of whom said: 'do it yourself, you can do that', but I wanted to set the bar high and have no regrets about what I put out as my first foray into the retail world of CDs – while it lasts!

A friend of mine, Rick Barrows told me about Kristina Stykos who going digital and was a recording engineer. I got in contact with her and the rest, as they say, is history. My first CD is still one of my favourites. Kristina did a brilliant job. Recently Kristina released her own fifth, to my knowledge, CD called Horse Thief. I had Ms. Stykos' first CD, In the Earth's Fading Light (2005) and could not quite get into it. I saw and heard a great songwriter and performer, but for me, there was something missing that I could not put my finger on. Whatever it was, is here in bucketfuls on Horse Thief.

Kristina's songwriting skills, both musically and lyrically are top notch. Her word choices are flawless. The sadness in some of the songs (some heart wrenching) is deep, her lyrics are powerful, have meaning and grit behind them. There is humour too. And bounce! I listen to so much music and these days it is hard to find a great beat and tune, catchy as all heck and good lyrics. It seems that either the words are, quite bluntly, shite and the music is good, or the other way around, or it's all crap. But not here. Oh, no, not here. I grew up listening to master song writers from Paul Simon to Elvis Costello, and Stykos hits the mark on Horse Thief, totally!

The album opens with the crackingly good title track resplendent with slide guitar, passionate fiddle and thumping bass and drums, and of course Kristina's voice. I have to say something about her voice. It is all hers. Some voices out there in the ether sound the same as many others, and but a few stand out. As you wind through the songs on Horse Thief you will hear slight traces of Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith and a hint of Marianne Faithful, but it is all Ms. Stykos. Her voice is like a V12 engine, just idling, or cruising along some boardwalk with the wind blowing in your hair. I have not seen Kristina playing live, but will try to, as I want to hear her belt out some song and see what that V12 voice can do!

The second track keeps up the high standard of work (which flows with ease through the whole album) and the music here is complimented with keyboards which I wish there was a little more of. But that's just me – I love the sound Kristina uses on the song and in You'll Never Love Me. The third song, Me, Myself, Moi could have seemed a little out of place, but it is perfectly at home on Horse Thief. For some reason, with no reason, this is one of my favourite tracks. The lyrics are very clever in an unpretentious way. Although a tradition approach to a sort of patter song in it's feel, it is a very topical song with references to our modern digital world: "I need a 12 step, two step /Quarter sawn fix /Or a savvy zen seduction /I need clickable buttons /And a 1-5 list of simple tips /And how-to instructions." Love it! These are very different lyrics to It's Over where Kristina sings: "...I threw down my stars /and shouted at the night" - powerful stuff. As If Tears Could Say is one of the most beautiful songs I have heard.

The album jogs along taking you through country, city, and rural Vermont life. This is a great album. Unpretentious, clever, witty, intelligent. Kristina has great insight. The music, played by Stykos (acoustic guitar, banjo, bass, mandola, mandolin and keyboards as well as vocals) is backed up by some great musicians: Bow Thayer, Patrick Ross (the brilliant fiddle in Horse Thief), Alex Abraham, Neal Massa, Steve Mayone, backing vocals on a couple of tracks by Nikki Matheson, and drummers Matt Musty and Jeff Berlin.

The packaging is a treat. I loved album covers when we all used to buy vinyl and some LPs I only bought because of the covers. This might have been one of those albums. The photography throughout the tri-gate digipack and booklet (yes, there is a booklet inside with all the lyrics and players so you can read along!) is stunning and, I think, captures all of Kristina.

I would love to hear an album of Stykos' with more work like the title track. Story songs of floods, old timers, bank robberies, or maple syrup thieves maybe! This album is about love, betrayal and loss, and redemption and done in such a way it is uplifting. I did not want the album to end and when there were some longer pauses after some of the tracks I hoped for more and got it. The 13 titles ends with an instrumental called Remembering and is the perfect ending on a perfect album, like a sigh in the night.

Kristina Stykos reveals dark maturity in “Horse Thief”

Album review by Art Edelstein, arts correspondent, Barre Montpelier Times-Argus

July 9, 2015


The fifth solo album by Chelsea singer-songwriter Kristina Stykos shows a mature artist expanding her musical palette and sound while continuing themes she has explored in her previous work.

Stykos has been a favorite of this writer for the decade since she released “In The Fading Light” and won a Times Argus-Rutland Herald Tammie Award for Best Album of the year 2005. At that time she was just beginning to self-record her work using a home studio, playing wonderful guitars built by her husband Michael Millard of Froggy Bottom Guitars, and fixing her life’s GPS in the music she was writing.

Back then Stykos’ music was folk and Celtic-based. Her voice, a mixture of smoky sensuality, ragged edge weariness and growing maturity while never pretty, was engaging because it had substance and style.

In the ensuing decade, Stykos has released three more CDs, each building on the previous work in both their emotional and technical aspects. Her playing became more assured; her ability to capture sounds and build a mix in her role as the recording engineer also grew with each effort.

Stykos also expanded her business as Pepperbox Studios, recording other musicians’ albums. She has gathered a group of studio musicians, session players if you like, who can enhance other artists’ work. As a result, Stykos is now a small but potent musical entrepreneur.

One aspect of her growing career has not changed much. Stykos writes material that is dark. Her song lyrics are weighty affairs with lyrics exuding pain, relationship misery, loss and misunderstanding — a slew of problems that are universal but seem to be channeled through this engaging and talented woman.

Thus it is that “Horse Thief,” her latest album, is her most advanced project in a variety of ways, while the continuum of pain and sadness hangs over the album like a pall.

First to consider here are the graphics. Visually, this CD is gorgeous. The cover photo, a black and white of a white horse with lightning in the background by John Churchman, is striking. The inner sleeve and photos similarly are topnotch. This places “Horse Thief” as an album to be noticed. And opening the package and listening won’t disappoint.

However, if you only listened to the title track, which opens the album, you might think this album is a dark visage of country music. “Horse Thief,” the song, has an outlaw country music theme delivered in a Bob Dylan vocal style from his Pat Garrett and Bill The Kid era, or, a Townes Van Zandt Texas ballad. It’s a great track, with additional music by Bow Thayer on banjotar and Patrick Ross on fiddle. Definitely this track will get lots of airplay. But it’s not carried over to the rest of the album.

The music on the CD is more diverse than this, with forays into hip-hop on “Me, Myself and Moi,” new age folk on “Human of Peace,” piano ballad in “As If Tears Could Say,” and other variations of folk, pop, blues on the 13 tracks.

The cement holding this album together is Stykos’ weary vocal delivery and the themes. In the second track, “It’s Over,” Stykos writes of a relationship fight that leads her to drive to the local bar. Of her partner in this song, as she relates: “He always told me I was depressed, my restless confusion; I admit I suppressed it to try to fit an illusion; Like a bird in a net, trying to jump up and fly.” Stykos’ male protagonist has perfectly captured her emotional complexity and the style of the lyric ideas in this recording, as well as many of the songs she has previously written.

“Horse Thief” is musically sophisticated, with superb production values. Stykos has become a talented engineer and producer. This is mature songwriting, relationship-gone-awry songs primarily from a woman’s perspective, delivered in the soaked-in-life voice that is Kristina Stykos. This should be her breakout album both sonically and visually.


Recension. "Horse Thief" med Kristina Stykos

Album review by Stefan Lundin, musician and blogger

August 14, 2015


Den amerikanska Vermont-baserade singer/songwritern Kristina Stykos har jag följt en längre tid och till och med blivit vän på avstånd med. Jag tycker inte det ska hindra mig från att göra en rättvis bedömning av hennes nya CD “Horse Thief”. Om man ska försöka sig på en etikettering av Kristinas musik blir det väl närmast det man nu kallar “amerikana”, dvs. en musik som vare sig kan kallas folk, blues, jazz eller rock, men där känslan av det som framförs ändå kan vara en syntes av dessa och är omisskänslig.

Texterna ska i detta sammanhang inte förglömmas och jag tycker att de håller en väldigt hög klass. Som här på nya skivan där jag kan filtrera ut ett övergripande tema, nämligen förlusten av kärlek och hur man ska kunna återfå den. Ta sången “It´s over”, den andra i ordningen på skivan där första versen lyder:

“It wasn¨t really
Too much of a fight
He just broke what was around
Told me I was no good
I kicked the wall
Hard as I could.”

Och den som följer därefter, “Heart in the wreckage”:

“It doesn´t seem wrong
Baby what´s love for
If it aint´t for this
I don´t want it anymore
You know I can´t be strong
Every single day
You got to hold the light
Until the darkness goes.”

Det är en strålande bra sång som verkligen griper tag i en. Kristinas huvudsakliga ton är den lågmälda, reflektiva men det finns goda undantag på skivan. Dessutom kan hon vara härligt självironisk som i “Me, myself and Moi.”

Som få andra kvinnliga artister kan Kristina Stykos hantera ett stort antal instrument, de flesta av sångerna har hon faktiskt gjort helt på egen hand understödd av en trummis och det finns verkligen inget att invända mot hennes höga spelkompetens.

En av de allra starkaste sångerna på “Horse Thief” är den lätt jazziga “It´s a mystery” med sin drömska ljudbild.

“Don´t let it be said
Your faith in me was blind
Don´t mix me up with any other person
Don´t tell it and slant it
The story´s still half mine
Now it´s time to put it to rest- it´s a mystery”

I “By the minute” porträtteras, om jag får uttrycka det så, den person som svikit i mindre smickrande ord. Kan man ana ett desperat sökande efter en annan man i “Let it run”, där hon erbjuder sig att diska och hel del annat för den presumtive? Humor och lite allvar i skön förening. När jag hör “You´ll never love me” tänker jag i viss mån på Patti Smith, i bakgrunden hör jag dennas tonfall. Kristina kan förvisso rocka till det hela och låta bluesig som i ”Talk to me”. M.a.o. är detta inte en skiva som man direkt ska sätta på vid läggdags.

Kanske är “When you love someone” skivans allra starkaste sång, men jag vet att sådana utnämningar brukar slå tillbaka på mig. Hela låtens sound är överväldigande och det åstadkommer hon nästan helt på egen hand. Starkt!

“But I fell so hard I got blinded
I should have taken my time
He told me that he loved me
Then he changed his mind
He led me to headwaters
And now I can´t come down
I´m wearing a thin blanket
And sleeping on the ground
How was I to know-
Your work is never done
When you love someone.”

Skivan avslutas på ett storartat sätt med “Human of peace”, “As if tears could say” och den helt instrumentala drömska “As if tears could say”. I sammanfattning vill jag nog säga att detta är Kristinas allra bästa album och den har definitivt en annan prägel än föregångaren “Wyoming Territory”. Hoppas fler kan upptäcka denna märkvärdiga artist. Jag avslutar med denna strof ur “As if tears could say”:

“Stay with me
Now in this final hour
Linger beyond the sun
Taste every drop of love´s sweet shower
Ask the clouds only to sigh
And clarity grow in your eyes
What is this, passion´s blade again
Cutting deep to complete its end
As if tears could say”

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Horse Thief