By Chris Wheatley
Born on the banks of the Hudson and partly raised in rural Alabama, multi-instrumentalist and singer Peter Karp has a long and distinguished career as a performer and songwriter. For such a talented artist, solo releases have been comparatively few, which makes new album Magnificent Heart an especially welcome release. From the opening seconds of the record, it is clear that this is a musician steeped in the blues, and the blues, perhaps more than any other genre, is a music born of experience. Musically and otherwise, Peter Karp has that in spades. The album is released May 8th via Rose Cottage Records.
“Sitting on the Edge of the World” gets straight into it. A swaggering, rocking entrance which throws its ‘blues’ right in your face with classic riffs, a walking bass line and some razor-sharp harmonica. Yet the track also does a grand job of showcasing Karp’s eclecticism. Just when you think you know where it’s going, we veer into a sweet, Beatles-esque refrain, complete with joyous hand-claps, followed by some frankly gorgeous guitar. Which brings us on to Karp’s guitar-work. Never overly flamboyant, his playing is crisp, inventive, spare and striking. As you would expect from the veteran songwriter, lyrically, the album as a whole is also strong. Magnificent Heart is surprising and playful, even at its darkest moments. “My heart is crying tears, my eyes are bleeding,” laments Karp on the opener. With this songwriter, nothing is as straightforward as it might at first seem.
On ‘She Breaks Her Own Heart,’ we’re treated to some lovely understated brass from the Cold City Horns, who hum and buzz and accentuate in a manner thrillingly reminiscent of the golden years of Motown and Stax. Indeed, the track as whole hovers somewhere between the eras, and it does so effortlessly. Only the modern production gives it away. “She was a blessing and a curse and nightmare, she was a dream,” sings Karp, whose vocals, as ever, are pleasingly raspy, efficient and expressive.
“The Grave” slinks out from the marsh gas of the swamps like the ghost of Robert Johnson. “Sometimes you feel like confessing, the evils of this life’s lesson,” challenges Karp, a man who surely knows a thing or two about hard lessons, cold regrets and doubts. “While talking to a preacher might get you saved, you know some things are best taken to the grave.”
Originating from a poem by Karp’s late wife, Mary Lou Bonney Karp, “Scared,” takes another turn. It is a melancholy meditation on fear and angst, featuring sparse percussion, sustained organ chords and some lovely inter-locking guitars. This track also features a wonderful solo from Karp’s son, James Otis.
“Chainsaw” is a treat. Sounding as free and expressive as an impromptu jam, this is Karp at his most humorous and whimsical. It is none the less affecting for all that. The record ends with “Face the Wind,” a deeply impressive song, which sculpts a beautiful landscape from piano, organ and strings. “We were born to face the wind,” sings Karp. It is song of acceptance and defiance. An apt closer, indeed.
The very best albums are those which reward repeated listens, that uncover something new with every spin. Magnificent Heart certainly ticks that box. For all its invention, there is a continuity to its variety, a cohesion to its broad pallet. Production is lush and expansive, but not too over-powering. Similar to Jimmy Miller’s work with the Rolling Stones, there is a feeling of ‘total sound,’ yet individual instruments are given plenty of room to breathe. Jangling piano, organ, backing-vocals and, of course, plenty of guitars, succeed in standing out, whilst also very much remaining a part of the whole.
This is the blues, yes, but informed by and infused with a lifetime of learning, listening and reflection. Karp takes inspiration from literature, letters and vividly remembered experiences, from the ‘real deal’ singers and craftsmen of Beale Street to the modern era. From these ingredients, he has managed to craft an album of undeniable sincerity.
Being true to yourself is, surely, what the blues are all about. Peter Karp is nothing if not true.
Peter Karp Online