Review Summary: If people weren't made to tell stories, we would see only stars, not constellations.
Country music is often a genre defined by its images. It’s right there in the name – an evocation of a particular space, abstracted to the universal. On Kassi Valazza’s powerful, potent debut Dear Dead Days
that country landscape is shot through with the sepia tint of memory and of the early morning sun that spills through fluttering drapes. It piles images of the past, the present, and fictionalizations of both, and sets them to wandering dusty streets, dirt trails, or pacing the still, stuffy rooms of old houses. Lush guitar licks and the gentle breath of brushed drums here, a patiently placed organ or pedal steel there, breathe the scenes into languid motion. And as empty as those rooms may seem at first blush, there’s no escaping the ghosts of better times that can still be caught in the quiet moments.
Dear Dead Days
is a painstaking collage of those quiet moments, colored in with the instinctive associations naturally tied to a style with as much breadth and history as country music provides. Country as a whole has its own established brushstrokes, but Valazza finds a distinctly potent voice through her own impressionistic interpretation. Her precise moments of emotional specificity hone the well-worn genre touchstones to fine points, twisting expectations and weaponizing nostalgia. “Cayuse” begins the set with a melancholy tapestry of finger picked acoustic and distant slide guitar lent a hint of drama via reverberating floor tom before Valazza’s words slide in, all vernacular and twang, wavering like liquid amber. Telling stories (“weaving tales,” they’ll sometimes say ‘tween the saguaros).
And it winds from there like a travelogue through country icons that stand tall enough to hold their own in Monument Valley. The swaying lilt and this-door-don’t-just-swing-your-way romance of Loretta Lynn, the muted psychedelia hiding out with Karen Dalton, Lyle Lovett’s melancholy pragmatism for eulogizing the here-and-now, to save time if nothing else – all show their faces in Dear Dead Days
’ dusty doorways. Ghosts themselves. There’s not much a country artist can do to skirt their shadow. Credit to Kassi, then, that at the end of the day, it is her own voice that comes clear out the other side, and even that doesn’t really do it justice.
Because there is genuine emotion here, hanging heavy from just about every word. There are stories, of course: no self-respecting country artist would be caught dead without ‘em, and Valazza’s run the full field: tell of personal heartbreak, tell of watching others steadfastly on their roads into not much, tell of self-evident fictions. But what stands out is her timeline: these are stories after the dust has settled and the drama has been replaced by perspective. It’s easy enough to talk about the house collapsing. Something else entirely to take stock, see the foundation’s still in tact, and look instead to what might stand there next. “Cayuse” tells of a wayward lover, but there aren’t any illusions. “So I guess I’ll just let the fool win, Cause this chasing gets ugly as sin.” “Mary” takes the third person route, but speaks of the titular character finding her own corner of the world as her unrequited love falls into financial ruin. The most potent might be "Chino," a letter of sorts, imploring first her father and mother, and finally herself – to stay still. And knowing there’s fat chance of that. “I’m okay,” she intones at the end of each verse, that simple phrase taking on a hundred different meanings as it goes.
And often, the words eventually dissolve, whether it be in the middle or conclusion. After a while, words run out of things to say. Nothing left but a guitar to take up the vacated space to sing its own solo, sometimes jubilant, sometimes forlorn, always potently expressive. It is country music, after all. The words don’t mean much if there aren’t fingers to show the truth behind them. Otherwise, they’re just stories.
Dear Dead Days
is a surefire statement that there’s still endless bits of the mythic West that stand to be colored in, no matter how many grooves are worn into the trails. There’s only so many stories in the world, but everyone has their own truth to tell. Make no mistake. Kassi Valazza tells stories. But she doesn’t tell just-stories.