New York City-based folk rock musician Kate Fenner has released a raw snapshot into a critical period of her life with new album “Middle Voice.”
The “middle” here applies, as middles often do, to so many states of almost – of being almost one thing, and almost another. On the surface, the middle voice is the go-between. It’s an agent who acts and has the world acted upon them. One with free will but also vulnerable to the will of chance. The middle is a state of being, an in-between middle of purpose, direction, life and death. In this album’s case, the middle is all of these things, and also a vantage point. It is the top of a hill between valleys, seeing before and after, lightness and darkness, faith and fear.
The recording of these songs came during a turbulent time for Fenner – she had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and as she awaited surgery while bound to her bed, she had the unmitigated impulse to make sure her voice was captured on tape – in the event that something happened to it while she was under. Thankfully, Fenner recovered and went forward with turning those bed bound recordings into an album.
A standout track, and the song that already has a music video pairing, is “The Yield.” Fenner murmurs longing observations like, “I think this road will turn out beautifully,” and “there’s a wind that blows through now and then that says I may never see you again.” The imagery cuts from Fenner sitting in her bed, methodically cutting at sheets, lining her own limbs in chalk loosely cupped in one hand, and strumming her guitar. Pieces of this song feel as though they take place during that longest nighttime hour, the one that puddles and stays rather than drips past, the one that elongates your experience of the dark. Her voice is filled with raw emotion that years but never strains. It’s eventually revealed that the sheets and the stitching were to create an abstruse dress emboldened with the phrase “I can’t believe this is over.” She dons it and places a large, red floral over one ear, like a woman in the gardens of Seville, prepared and preened for the end.
Some of the song titles are antithesis to others, another reference to the middle vantage point. There is “A Divorce” – with starts with an upbeat declaration of “I’m so glad this is over.” There is also “A Marriage,” while ends up being in intimate portrait of establishing a pair as a team against every external threat, factor, and force. Fenner pens such beautiful truths as, “My light is your light. We can’t both be right, but we can outrun our injury.” It’s a declaration that is neither loud nor flashy, but a real triumph on the realities of a relationship.
Fenner has had time to hone this sound, singing, songwriting, and touring with various projects since the 1980s. Her first solo album, Horses and Burning Cars, was released in 2003 and followed by Magnet. Middle Voice marks her third, recorded with long time musical collaborator, Tony Scherr. The album hosts an all star team of musical contributors in addition to Scherr, including Bill Frisell, Jason Moran, Norah Jones, and Chris Brown.
You could say Fenner has a Joni Mitchell or Neko Case-esque gift that puts emotions to seasons of life in a way that makes you feel something, a certain cosmic connection to the intricacy of the human condition. Maybe a large part of this is the honest narrative present in the album that is soul bearing to the point of being disarming. There’s a metaphysical precipice onto which Fenner dangles herself, and as an audience, you catch yourself consistently on a sharp intake of breath you can’t seem able to easily exhale.