Katy Guillen and the Girls
With the blues, people throw parties to cover up pain.
That’s exactly what Kansas City-based blues rockers Katy Guillen and the Girls have done with Heavy Days, their second CD. The band takes addictive Friday-night catharsis as seriously as any roots band, and the opening song here, “Driving To Wake Up,” arrives like a house party. Heads can bob. Lips can be bitten in ecstasy. Hips can spontaneously pivot and swirl and shake.
But the when the lyrics of “Driving” sink in, they leave tension — it’s like watching a smile when it doesn’t quite hold. In spite of its Blasters-like energy, “Driving” covers an exhaustion level past the traditional blues boundaries. The person driving to clear her head (a fairly lousy idea, really, when you think about it) is distraught over the choices she’s been pushed to make as a musician, and she’s driving “just to wake up from this nightmare.” When Guillen sings “You give them what they want/because, yeah, you want it, too/at least you think you do,” a stretched four-count pause before “do” collapses that hopeful lie completely.
The title track, “Heavy Days,” continues that theme of wishing things were “new again” — like they were at the beginning. The blues theme of needing (and occasionally finding) that one missing piece fills the album. In “Cold Was the Night,” written by bassist Claire Adams, those poles of being miserable because you’re cold and momentarily content and warm because you’re resting in someone’s arms loop back and forth and make it clear that searching and finding never stops, even in the context of one night in one bed.
The success of the album comes from the fact that the yin of discontent and yearning is balanced by the yang of the ways in which Katy Guillen and the Girls absolutely tear it up. Recorded at Weights+Measures Soundlab in Kansas City, Heavy Days has the sternum-pounding pressure and throb of a Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble album, with Adams’s bass way up front and often doubling Guillen’s vocals or guitar lines.
But within that framework of miles-wide blues thunderstorms, the CD is filled with unexpected quieter moments. In “Heavy Days,” Guillen’s first buzzsaw solo is followed by an angelic, layered, harmonized “Oooh” that wouldn’t be out of place on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors. “Waking Up From You” (about walking away while you still can) pushes the mid-‘60s Yardbirds edge of the blues, with that mid-‘60s feel and an unexpectedly infectious sing-along chorus of “that intensity, so good, that you gave to me.”
The spaciousness of the production gives Guillen’s lead vocals and guitar as much room as they need to thrive. Her solos have room to be more than just instrumental breaks; on “Don’t’ Need Anyone,” her unbound guitar is a release of frustration more explosive than the lyrics. Sometimes a record can be a lip biter and a nail biter, right at the very same time.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.