Kirsten Thien – Two Sides
Screen Door Records – 2020
8 tracks; 33 minutes
It is not every day that you encounter a graduate of Georgetown Business School who abandoned a career on Wall Street for a life in music. Playing solo or with a band, NYC-based Kirsten Thien has established a strong reputation across four previous albums, this new project inspired by the idea of the two sides of 45 rpm singles – ‘A’ and ‘B’ sides. Even though some of the songs here were written years ago they are intended to represent four single releases, with something of a theme across each pair of songs. Kirsten sings lead throughout and plays guitar on four tracks. The core band is Arthur Neilson on guitar, Tommy Mandel on keys, producer Erik Boyd on bass and Steve Holley on drums; Alex Alexander takes over the drum stool on two numbers, Raul Midón plays acoustic guitar on two and New Orleans vocalists Tarriona Tank Ball and Jelly Joseph (Tank and Jelly) appear on two tracks.
“Shoulda Been” is a strong opener, a rocker with electric slide set over an acoustic slide background, Kirsten demonstrating her independent attitude as she details all the expectations that people might have had for her but she remains resolutely herself. A lighter, almost country rock sound pervades “Sweet Lost And Found”, Tank and Jelly’s choral vocals adding a touch of gospel to the theme of positive thinking. Unusually both the opening tracks feature bass solos by producer Erik, slide bass on the first, 6-string bass on the second.
“After I Left Home” is inspired by Buddy Guy’s autobiography When I Left Home and follows some of Buddy’s story on a straight blues with Arthur playing an extended solo that could easily be Buddy himself. We then switch to a Bo Diddley-inspired beat on “Say It Out Loud”, Tank and Jelly again adding backing vocals to good effect as Kirsten sets out a very positive attitude to life: “We can live a dream and we can hide away, keep it to ourselves, be too afraid; or we can write it down to make it real. I know how you feel, I know how you feel, just say it out loud. Nobody but me can live my dream, no one can say it for me, I am the key. I am the key and my dreams are proud, I’m not afraid to say it out loud.” Raul supplies a beautifully light solo on acoustic guitar that complements the song well.
Kirsten turns to blues-rock on the chugging “I Gotta Man” as she and Arthur exchange pretty heavy solos before a real departure as Kirsten sings in Spanish on the latin-flavoured “Montañas”. Raul is credited as co-writer for the Spanish translation and the rhythm section of Erik and Alex is joined by the fleet-fingered, jazzy piano of Fabian Almazan and the South American guitars (cuatro and requinto) of John Benthal as Kirsten bemoans the fact that she felt she could move mountains but she could not change her man.
Multi-award winning acoustic bluesman Doug McLeod adds acoustic and resonator to Raul’s acoustic as Kirsten offers sage advice from her own experience that you need to do “Better Or You’re Gonna Get Burned”. The Delta feel from the slide is underlined by some Hill Country rhythms from guest drummer Wes Little. The album ends up in Texas with the sole cover, Leon Russell’s “I’d Rather Be Blind”, originally recorded by Freddie King in 1972 on Texas Cannonball. The core band is back for this one with Kirsten doing the rhythm work as Arthur plays some bright and tasty leads.
Across these eight varied songs Kirsten proves to be a good vocalist and plays her part on guitar too. The four pairs of songs do hang together reasonably well but it is a shame that the album is rather short by modern standards, making you regret that there was not another 45 or two to add in.