Kristina Stykos, Wyoming Territory
Album review by Dan Bolles, Seven Days
March 6, 2013
On her latest record, Wyoming Territory, Vermont’s Kristina Stykos continues her ascent as one of the state’s premier Americana songwriters. A road-weary work filled with laments on life, love and longing, Stykos’ fifth album plays like a local answer to Lucinda Williams’ own fifth release, her seminal 1998 Grammy-winning record, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Just to be clear, Stykos is no Lucinda Williams. But there are rather striking parallels to be drawn between both songwriters’ fifth albums. Both are rooted in dusty, straightforward country-rock. Both center on themes of time and place as keys to identity. And, perhaps most overtly, both contain songs called “Jackson” that serve as album centerpieces.
Stykos’ Jackson is in Wyoming, which was her muse for this record. And unlike Williams, who was leaving Jackson, Miss. — and wasn’t going to cry about it, wink, wink — Stykos’ Jackson represents the ultimate destination, something like a great western promised land where she’ll be made whole again. Or, as she sings in her raspy alto, “My heart’s a mansion just for me. / Until we meet in Jackson.”
Much as Williams enlisted a star-studded cast forCar Wheels — Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, etc. — Stykos has surrounded herself with a veritable all-star ensemble of Vermont talent on Wyoming Territory. Longtime collaborator Bow Thayer turns up on bass guitar throughout. Ace fiddler Patrick Ross lends his soaring chops to several cuts, as does keyboardist Chas Eller. Jeff Berlin turns in some fine performances on drums. And Vermont expat Mark Spencer chips in with typically excellent lead-guitar work.
But the most impressive aspect of Stykos’ latest effort is the songwriter herself. She long ago earned her reputation as one of the state’s finest lyricists. But never has she sounded so focused or refined, combining the straightforward prose of a blue-collar bard with deeply poetic sensitivity. Indeed, many of the record’s most compelling moments are those that find Stykos alone with her guitar. For example, “The Stars Divide,” on which she cautions a loved one — whether a former lover or someone else isn’t clear, but hardly matters — to never let his passion be consumed by reason. She sings, “And promise me before you sleep / To never let the stars divide / Your raging river spirit from / Your elemental eyes.”
Wyoming Territory, Kristina Stykos
Album review by Gunther Klobinger, Rocktimes
September 16 2013
A lot of artists in the music business like to use the ‘independent’ moniker. They flaunt this apparent independence from major labels and publishers with a gesture of irrepressible, incorruptible authenticity. The indie scene flourishes particularly in the Americana genre. Small to medium-size record companies are shooting up like mushrooms while singer-songwriters, folkies, representatives of New Country and of course un-ironed counterparts from the rocker species gig their way through the corresponding clubs. A refreshing trend, actually, which shows that music is not dictated only by sales numbers. Some artists are still willing to do their thing without allowing themselves to be influenced by the multi-medial, flashy world of the mass media. Many a representative of this sub-culture has managed to receive the consecrations of big business through constant touring and continual presence in alternative media.
The brittle song-poet Lucinda Williams would be a good example here. She made the transition from indie diva to Grammy winner. And it is precisely Williams that Kristina Stykos has often been compared with. But like so often, comparisons are counterproductive in this case as well – afterwards you hear the works of one artist with the expectation that he or she has the qualities of the other one. So where do the similarities between Kristina Stykos and Lucinda Williams lie? Both are women, have roughened articulation, write songs on American and personal topics which lie in the musical no-man’s land between folk, rock and country. But that is where the similarities end.
What Kristina Stykos brings to the table beyond these things: She is ‘independent’ in every way possible. In addition to her activities as musician, she also studied audio engineering at the Berklee School of Music and set up her own studio. Where independence is also her thing: The entire facility is solar- and wind-powered, with an emergency generator only for backup, allowing her to work completely off the grid. In addition to her own albums, she uses the studio for producing the work of other artists, typically from her home state of Vermont. The discs are then published on her own Thunder Ridge Records label. It doesn’t get much more independent than this.
For the latest work “Wyoming Territory” the songwriter cloistered herself on a remote ranch so she could work out the basics for eight new pieces, refine them in peace, and record demos. Where in America this idyllic property is located goes without saying – the title of the CD speaks volumes. The reason for this retreat and the exploration of the most personal essential qualities had its origin in a crisis that is probably the worst nightmare of all vocalists. In spite of regular practice and frequent performing, Kristina Stykos lost part of her singing voice. Her vocal range suffered hugely. As one would expect, she suddenly felt more than simply limited in her entire artistic expressive capability. But when she finally accepted this limitation, she decided to write songs which were custom tailored for this new alto voice. She did not make the mistake of many singers who insist on trying to reach their former upper ranges on stage. Which usually ends in embarrassing orgies of screeching. Like Joan Baez before her, Kristina Stykos adapted her songs, arrangements and interpretations for the here and now of her voice and not the other way around. A wise decision!
Along with the originally planned eight tracks came four more, and with a few session musician friends from Vermont she completed the recordings in her self-contained Pepperbox Studio. When the CD was released, something unusual happened – in spite of the voice issues and the fact that the compact songs were also somewhat born of need, the criticism in God’s Own Country of America were rather unanimous: The album was consistently praised as the musically most mature work of Kristina Stykos to date. In previous years the reviewers never got tired of noting that the agile singer and guitarist is one of the most gifted authors of song lyrics. Her musical qualities were for the most part reduced to comparisons with the great Lucinda Williams.
But in “Wyoming Territory” we find a musically mature artist who is a master at expressing the underlying mood of her lyrics in sound. The key word here is emotion. But the author and composer is far from the emotional chaos of bubblegum pop. Many phenomena she sings about we know from our own lives. When Kristina Stykos tells about longing and love, all our human doubts, uncertainties and anxieties vibrate along with it. The old refrain ‘we’ll never part’ isn’t mindlessly repeated for the nth time. Love too knows abysms. This becomes especially clear in “Angelino.” In this snotty rock number the dirty facts are dragged to light without varnish and at times in a staccato-like recitative. A supposedly harmless, everyday flirt drifts off into sexual subservience and emotional slavery. Even for such sobering stories Kristina Stykos finds the right sounds; her voice accuses, but also empathizes. The band scrubs itself through the desolate world mercilessly with dirty rhythmic banging, a world in which one dreams of love and forces oneself into sex. Guitars and bass also treat this number like a dirty job that someone has to do.
In spite of all the bitter disappointments that reality has to offer, dreams and longings have an unmistakable place in the creations of our folk-rock lady. She even demands “free speech of the heart” in the song “Highway Marker 9”.
We know that ourselves, don’t we? Too much closeness can pulverize the greatest love, and so in “Love The Distance” Kristina Stykos sings “Because we can love / Love the distance / That’s what we do.” Lines like this are a constant reminder of how stunningly the singer is able to turn her thoughts into gripping, comprehensible lyrics.
Using a raw, sometimes even brittle alto voice Kristina Stykos transports her words convincingly into the music. The guitar accompaniment is unobtrusive, pragmatic and set in a tender groove. The band follows every mood and feeling register in a tight group sound. Solo accents are provided notably by Mark Spencer on lead guitar, Patrick Ross on fiddle and Chas Eller on keyboards. Whether it’s subtle rocking like in “Watershed” or tenderly wrapping the poetics of the words like in “Jackson”, the music and content always form an inseparable unity. You don’t have to truly comprehend or understand every text – the sound of “Wyoming Territory” simply captures you anyway – but in any case it’s rewarding to engage with this disc. Anyone who really goes deeper into the lyrics and music of Kristina Stykos will experience goose bumps more than once.
Kristina Stykos Reveals New Depth
Album Review by Art Edelstein, Barre-Montpelier Times Argus
January 3, 2013
Kristina Stykos, one of our favorite singer-songwriters and now a
top-flight local recording producer, released two new albums in the waning
days of 2012, and thus we greet the new year with reviews of “Wyoming
Territory” and “Beautiful Blood.”
“Wyoming Territory” is the result of a one-month residency awarded Stykos,
from Chelsea, by the Ucross Foundation, near Sheridan, Wyo. This lovely
ranch-styled residence also hosted former Vermonter Pulitzer Prize-winning
writer Annie Proulx.
The result of Stykos’ month-long residency a year ago was eight songs,
written and recorded at different stages of production there. She later
added four more songs to complete the album in the year it took to
finalize the production.
There is no doubt that her stay in Wyoming, a state with long vistas, high
mountains, and a very different point of view from Vermont, produced a
very Western-themed album.
Proulx, who lived for years in Vershire, was similarly affected by the
atmosphere in Wyoming, one result being her wonderful book of short
stories about the west, which included the basis for the movie “Brokeback
Mountain.” For Stykos this meant lyrics that reflect a Western lifestyle,
towns like Jackson, and characters like Jeffrey Lee.
The voice we hear on Wyoming, and her other recent releases, is not the
voice of earlier Stykos recordings. She admits to having vocal problems.
She has written:
“In the last decade I seem to have lost much of my singing voice from what
I knew it to be in my younger years. This has been a source of extreme
frustration and humiliation to me, as my career has been gaining steam and
everything else in my life lining up to support an active performing
career. With the loss of much of my vocal power, I’ve had to limit my
performing and follow other avenues to pursue the life of a songwriter.
“Studio work has helped me keep my voice active but within an environment
where I can focus without fear of judgment around my loss of vocal
control. This project has served to give me confidence in my work and
helped me set new goals musically and spiritually, in keeping with the
diminishment of my vocal palette.”
Stykos need not be humiliated by the changes in her voice. What we hear
from the current Stykos is a wearier, somber sound, one with more depth, a
vehicle better suited to singing songs with weighty substantive lyrics.
This certainly is not the voice of a bubblegum pop chanteuse. Stykos now
delivers strong songs, with a mature, seemingly all-knowing vocal style.
Stykos has also left behind the neo-Celtic sound of groups like Wagtail
from several years ago.
“Wyoming Territory” has a wonderful cast of players including Jeff Berlin
on drums, Bow Thayer on bass, and Patrick Ross playing wonderful fiddle.
Stykos’ growing abilities on guitar are also in evidence here. The result
is a different sound for her, a chance to explore in words a different
part of America. Wyoming is a big state. It appears to also produce big
ideas as well.
The second album release by Stykos, “Beautiful Blood,” is a joint venture
with Steve Mayone, her second cousin. The two first met in 2006 at a
Vermont venue and later decided to do an album together.
Mayone is a fine musician and singer-songwriter. In his voice and delivery
we hear suggestions of Steven Stills and Gerry Rafferty.
The 13-song album includes seven lead vocals by Mayone and six by Stykos.
They also harmonize on many of the songs. The album contains several
Vermont references, such as “Backway to Victory” and “South of the Chelsea
Line,” and most of the songs are delivered in an electric folk style.
Jeff Berlin on drums, Scott Paulson on bass and Patrick Ross on fiddle
beef up the production values, adding to Mayone and Stykos’ guitars,
mandola, banjo and ukulele.
This is a very likeable album. I especially enjoyed Mayone’s singing here.
Since his is an unfamiliar name and voice, it was good to be exposed to a
new artist who might have otherwise slipped through the cracks.
Stykos remains the insightful lyricist. Her singing, while much mellowed,
continues to evolve but is always powerful. Together there is a simpatico
that is genetic as well as intellectual. They are a good match, and
“Beautiful Blood” is worthy of many listenings.
Wyoming Territory, Kristina Stykos
An album review by Stefan Lundin
Kristina Stykos is an American singing-poet who I got to know a bit more after I wrote a review of her album "Raven". I had heard it on Wretlind’s program ”Klingan” on Sverige Radio. Later we got in contact on Facebook and our contact has grown continuously. She lives with her husband, a guitar builder, far up in the state of Vermont, where she has her own studio, Pepperbox, and that is where this album was mainly recorded.
To find new inspiration for the songs on the disc, Kristina traveled to the sparsely populated state of Wyoming, hence the disc's title. The pictures in the booklet show a landscape so vast and desolate that one is sucked into it. The scenery, the atmosphere and Wyoming's history, along with Kristina's own feelings, form the backbone of the songs. I understand from Kristina herself that as many as eight of the songs were directly inspired by a month-long stay in the state. Places and place names appear in the texts. It was here the last remnants of the original American culture were wiped out, during the Indian uprisings in the late 1800s. That was also something Kristina wanted to capture and translate into her songs.
This disc clearly has a different atmosphere than "Raven". I had only one minor objection to that disc, mainly that Kristina might have arranged the songs with more instrumentation - I found some of them in need of that. She has apparently listened and taken to heart this advice for "Wyoming Territory", and the resulting productions are more diversified than "Raven". The mood is also a little happier and more open overall. As singing-poet, Kristina is somewhat of a minimalist, honing her stories to a few essential images, which makes the songs have an inner intensity and a highly original character. In addition, she is an amazing musician; very few women have the capacity and skills of several instruments.
I can’t point to a single song that I do not like on this disc. I haven’t been to Wyoming or Vermont, but the songs make me feel as if I had been there. The intensity is felt immediately as the first song, "Watershed", kicks off, and continues, throughout all twelve songs. Some songs are left bare, as the touching "Without Eyes" and the vaguely Dylanesque "Highway Marker 9". "The Lost Track" has a special magical power that goes straight to the soul; it was Kristina herself who told me it was the first song she wrote when she got to Wyoming and to her writer’s cottage. With just piano and acoustic guitar, she built this masterpiece. The final track "Forgiveness" has a majestic serenity that gives a worthy conclusion to this most memorable song collection. The lyrics are associative rather than descriptive.
I asked Kristina why she would label her music as "Americana" and she told me that it’s a designation that record companies routinely make, to cover music like this that has a more diffuse connection to folk, country and blues. A song like "Jackson" is perhaps the archetypal "Americana" song. Or the lovely "I'm Here for You".
As I hinted at in this review, I find this album more than enjoyable and worth listening to again and again.