By: Pete Laffin
Paul Kimbiris' newest release is his best work yet.
Ever wonder what Bob Dylan would sound like if he could sing?
First off, I entirely reject the notion that Bob Dylan actually can sing, or that he is an “interesting” or “unique” singer, as people like to say at parties. The man can’t sing. What’s more, claiming he can only diminishes his genius. The genre known as “singer/songwriter” seemingly requires the capacity to perform two specific functions. And yet, Bob Dylan became the greatest ever without being able to do one of them. Consider Michael Jordan becoming the greatest basketball player without being able to dribble, or Churchill becoming the greatest orator with a stutter. This is what Bob Dylan somehow pulled off. There’s no need to make excuses for him. His accomplishment is otherworldly, akin to Beethoven composing the Ninth Symphony while deaf.
Another qualification: In no way am I equating Dylan to the subject of this review, Paul Kimbiris. Dylan didn’t just write some of the greatest songs you’ve ever heard, he wrote most of them. When a song plays in a bar or a coffee shop and someone asks “who wrote that?” the answer is usually Dylan. In hundreds of years, skeptics will question whether or not any human could be so prolific in a given craft, the same way they question Shakespeare: Was there an enslaved coterie of writers he stole from? Was Satan in on it?
But back to the initial question: What would Dylan sound like with a decent set of pipes? This writer’s contention is that it might sound a lot like Boulder’s own Paul Kimbiris, especially on his latest album, “The Dark Side of Pearl.” His vocals are rich and deep with a timbre that occasionally rattles the ground. And yet, he retains the frantic dips and leaps that define the Dylan aesthetic. His songwriting is pretty darn good, too.
The title track “The Dark Side of Pearl” is where my Dylan musings find their strongest foothold. On the iconic downtown strip of Boulder known as Pearl, one strata of society buys $900 table napkins from knick-knack shops, while another earns its keep juggling flaming swords, or slinging coffee, or washing dishes, or working retail, as Kimbiris himself did years ago. From behind a counter he watched the crowds march down the red brick walking mall with plump shopping bags and blissful expressions. This track is a whimsical meditation on those days. It’s not the biting social commentary familiar to Dylan fans, but simply one man’s recollection of a less-than-stellar sitch: “All your confidence has left you/And you feel no one respects you/A simple hello would make all the difference in the world,” he wails at the chorus with his Dylan-esque vocal abandon. The perky rhythm and melody stand in contrast to the subject of the piece, which provides a satisfying dissonance. The essence of this track is that of the proverbial madman laughing at the rain, and you’ll find yourself laughing and clapping along too.
“Heavy Things” is another tune colored with the markings of Dylan. “Heavy things always come down/Get used to it/Deal with it,” is the bluntly sung chorus, a modern echo to “A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall.” Even more than on “The Dark Side of Pearl,” Kimbiris takes the vocal aesthetic of Dylan and infuses it with his own signature opulence. The instrumentation on this track is simply beautiful: the winding electric guitar notes in the deep background, the skillfully placed keyboard notes, and the resonant cello bows (played powerfully by Philip Parker of Denver’s Glowing House; also the record’s producer). The sound is more early-era alternative rock than it is folk, and the combination is damn cool. And more importantly, when he laments the heavier happenings of life, it rings with authority. The qualitative feel of the song is a great match for the message it hopes to convey. This song sounds like the hard-fought acceptance of life’s tragedies.
When Kimbiris first handed me the disc and I saw a track entitled “Sitting Home Alone with Your Guitar” I recoiled. Listening to artists talk about their art to other artists is something I’m just plain sick of. Having played stages for the past eighteen years, I’ve had my fill of listening to this kind of thing. (I’ve similarly been unable to attend a writer’s “talk” since grad school.) At this point it all just seems so (sorry, Mom, I can’t avoid the word)… masturbatory. And worse, the attempt to do so within a singular piece of art is loaded with landmines. It’s just so easy to come off trite or self-involved, or worse, miles off the mark. But after listening to the track dozens of times, I find myself experiencing two of life’s greatest feelings: being surprised, and being wrong. Kimbiris’ secret for pulling off the dreaded artist-explaining-art-in-a-piece-of-art is remaining a few feet off the ground throughout the piece, never committing to maxims, but sticking to abstractions. In this way, he is able to convey his experience without sounding preachy or clichéd. “When you’re sitting home alone with your guitar/The universe expanding, a union torn apart/Counting constellations from the rooftop of your car,” is the line recurring at the chorus, accented by some of the highest and truest vocal notes on the record. The description rings true: The art we make, we don’t really make, but access, from a place somewhere above our heads, and we pull it down and filter it through our souls. What’s more, the song itself is a clinic on quality songwriting. The airy and wispy vocal harmonies are a modern take on Simon and Garfunkel, but not as sleepy as what you might hear on a Fleet Foxes record. The cascading finger-picking gives a nod to the virtue of minimalism in acoustic music, and the nearly imperceptible shifts in volume dynamics keep it interesting till the end. The successful execution of this track is an accomplishment acoustic players from coast-to-coast would like to have under their belts.
My highest expectation for the record was a song of Kimbiris’ I’ve been familiar with for some time. “Bring Out Your Dead” is a straight up modern folk classic. If you love soulful acoustic music and are a fan of Monty Python (and man, are there a lot of people who fit this description), this might be your favorite song ever. It’s also another track where my Dylan-on-steroids vocal comparison finds a home. While “Dark Side of Pearl” recalls early Dylan protest songs, “Bring Out Your Dead” is more of the 70s Dylan love jam variety. While Kimbiris dips and climbs the length of his range with startling immediacy, the timbre of his tenor sustains. The elegant melody derived from a chord progression familiar to every guitar novice (you can figure out most of these songs in a single sitting, I even covered one at a show last weekend), the bittersweet beat, the lyrics that raise more questions than they answer: It all adds up to some seriously satisfying song-smithing.
Which is why I have to sadly conclude this track an opportunity missed. The magic is in there somewhere, but you have to strain to hear it due to overproduction. There is simply too much going on in the instrumentation, and the elaborate harmonies seem unnecessary, especially if you’ve seen this video on YouTube. The production is too smart by half, and the vocals are sterile in comparison to what Kimbiris achieves elsewhere on the record. Word is he will be re-recording this track for an upcoming project, and I can’t wait to hear how it turns out anew.
I’ll end with the real gem of the album: “Home Soon.” This track more than any reflects modern rock sensibilities; it could stand out in any of Ryan Adams’ recent releases. It’s got an infectious hook at the bridge, but it doesn’t rely on endless repetition (think “Let Her Go” by Passenger). The vocals are revelatory in their scruffy authenticity and the instrumentation is pristine, yet soulful, especially at the transitions, which are aided by rich cello bows. Local luminary Gregory Alan Isakov aided Kimbiris in the studio on this one (he also has co-writing credit for the track). Kimbiris was emphatic on the following point in the run-up to this review: If you want to make a great record, find great musicians to help you pull it off. He raved about the contributions of Patrick Meese, Ben Gallagher, Jeb Bows, and Philip Parker, each accomplished music makers from various musical outfits.
Though I can’t go into each track in-depth due to space/time restrictions, that’s not to say they aren’t worth some deep listening. If you want to hear how a single major-to-minor note dip can alter the complexion of an entire composition, take a listen to “Mexico.” If you revel in being stabbed in the heart by a single lyric (“Don’t know what I’m going to do/There’s a light in the tunnel and I hope it’s you”) listen to the “Ballad of Alex and Victoria.” And so on. Just buy the record, if only to give me a good old-fashioned bullshit check. You’ll thank me for it.
And if you see Kimbiris’ name on a local lineup, get your ass to that show. (Hint: There's one this weekend.) It’s rare that any local scene should harbor such a talent. Chances are, he won’t be part of it for long.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.