Albums, Music, The Revue — July 19, 2017 at 5:35 am

Kalbells – ‘Ten Flowers’ (album review)

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Kalmia Traver is often associated with leading the alt-pop marching band collective Rubblebucket. With her booming tenor and baritone saxophones, her radiant vocals, and frenetic dancing on stage, she exemplifies the term frontwoman, or, in this case, field commander. While she looks in control on stage, she was quietly fighting another battle off it, one with ovarian cancer. Like everything else she has encountered (namely critics) she has overcome her situation and emerged victorious. She is now cancer-free.

Following her battle, new life emerged in the form of her solo project, Kalbells. Last week, she shared her debut album, Ten Flowers, which is more than just a celebration of life. As Traver told Will Schube of Bandcamp (read the entire interview here):

All of the writing happened about a year after I was declared cancer-free; I was going to check-ups regularly and doing a ton of work with my other band, Rubblebucket. We were touring and recording and being really busy. When I finally knew that I had a whole month free in January, I grabbed it and started writing. I gave myself some breathing room to be totally creative… Writing the album was a big part of my healing, because the record is so much about detoxing and letting your body and your cells express what they need to. That period of writing was pretty transformative for me.

Other than the occasional flashes of saxophone, flute, and trumpet and drummer Ian Chang, Ten Flowers indeed reveals a new side to Traver. Gone is the boisterous and cathartic alt-pop of Rubblebucket, and songs that represented the feelings of a younger generation. In its place is a minimalist, synth-driven, detail-oriented approach, where even certain notes and elements tell a part of Traver’s story. Take, for example, the immaculate “Bodyriders.”

Through the graceful electronic production and the soft echoes of the percussion, Traver quietly reveals, “I woke up tired / Couldn’t find you / couldn’t tell you how my body won’t flow.” It is the voice of a woman realizing that something is wrong, yet the music as a whole hides the urgency. Listen closely, and a siren appears in the background, acting as the cry of Traver’s heart and the pain in her soul.

A circus-like atmosphere buzzes throughout “Why?!steria” complete with bird whistles, bursts of synth, a parade-like drum beat, tickling plucks of the violin, and the howl of a wolf. Despite its whimsical grandeur, the song is Traver and her companion facing death. “Who let you in? Who let me in?” she asks nervously. The carnival, though, breaks out on “Alonetime.” The most beautiful lullaby of the year is minimalist in its execution as just keys, a synth, Traver’s feathery voice, and her whistle are featured. The music is light and vivid with the sweetness of cotton candy. Rejuvenation, meanwhile, can be heard in Traver’s voice and lyrics, as she describes the little things she has come to appreciate once again. This is her revealing her heart and sharing a beautiful moment with us.

This same positive attitude is exhibited on the groovy and exhilarating electronic-driven “Craving Art Droplets,” which features electronic producer Ryan Power (who also produced the album). As a dance vibe is created when the song’s tempo picks up, Power sings with a whisper, “This is how we walk, swallowed in a cage. This is how we find our way.” The message is a simple yet important reminder that we must fall before we can walk.

Opening track “Wonder” is similarly dazzling and enticing. The production work is akin to tUnE-yArDs with multiple elements and beats percolating in all directions. Traver’s mood is exuberant, perhaps because the song may have been written right after she learned she was cancer-free. “This here is a miracle / I don’t care, I don’t care what people claim creates a miracle,” she sings dismissively.    

Her soul and attitude may best be told on a song where she is the storyteller instead of the protagonist. Through the exquisite, fantasy-like production work on “These Ripples Won’t Change,” Traver narrates the tale of a young damaged woman who sees the world in a beautiful way. Though the scars of her past remain, our heroine does not allow them to stop her from living life and enjoying each day.

And in this regard, “Ripples” defines what the album is all about – realizing which battles are important to fight and understanding that even the smallest event, such as watching snow fall on the sidewalk, can be beautiful. Travers delivers her message with subtlety, grace, creative beauty, and an understated power without including a single booming anthem in the collection. The LP is unforgettable because of its uplifting nature and the personal stories she tells. Ten Flowers actually is not just another album; it is Traver’s sigil and her rallying cry to us.

Ten Flowers is out now via NNA Tapes. It can also be purchased on Bandcamp.

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