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'River Of Light'   

-  Label: 'Thunder Ridge Records'
-  Genre: 'Folk' -  Release Date: '5th April 2019'-  Catalogue No: 'TRR025'

Our Rating:
Kristina Stykos was born in Ithaca, New York but this album is firmly rooted the landscape of in rural north-east region of the US where she settled in 1980. As she says in her bio : "I found myself in Vermont, to begin the slow work of learning to hear my inner voice and write better songs".

It is there that she also founded a small, Americana label, Thunder Ridge Records. In her Pepperbox Studio she has so far produced more than 30 albums in a solar, wind and generator powered facility, an off the grid labour of love she describes as "a kind of midwifery".

The thirteen tracks on her seventh solo album explore themes of love, aging, peace, and solitude with the help of musician friends including guitarists Val McCallum and Steve Mayone and Abby Jenne on backing vocals.

Now in her 60s, health problems have weakened Stykos' vocal chords and this means that her singing sounds hoarse and vulnerable. The positive aspect of this condition is that the quality of her voice is well-suited to the rawness of the tunes which are not designed to be refined or reassuring.

She has spoken of being influenced by traditional folk-rock yet although there's the obligatory road song (State Line Diner) her writing is for the most part resolutely personal showing no obvious interest in straight story telling.

It is this absence of objectivity that makes the material so striking. While the arrangements are fairly conventional her lyrics are direct, philosophical and heartfelt.

Caught By The Heart is a spoken word piece in the poetic style of a worldly wise Patti Smith. In it she addresses themes of love, comfort and innocence but also the darker reverse of rage, violence and annihilation; veiled references perhaps to an abusive relationship alluded to in her online biography. In this context it's somewhat ironic that in another song she admits I Like A Hard Hearted Man.

In the title track she doesn't shy away from feelings of pain and longing. In other references to loving relationships there is no trace of sentimentality. You won't catch Mariah Carey singing lines like "I wanna cover every mile of backwood scrub with you" (In The Cleansing Rain)

Overall, Stykos comes across as a fiercely independent spirit roaming the land and thinking a lot about the beauty and brutality of her immediate surroundings and, by extension, the world.

In the fatalistic Since You Asked she appears resigned to a destiny that means spending many days walking "alone on the stubble of this earth". In consequence, there is nothing remotely light or cheery about this set of songs but a fair degree of uplift comes from the cathartic power they convey.

Kristina Stykos' website
  author: Martin Raybould

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