Country belongs to a new generation of players, and one of those players just so happens to be Kari Holmes. Holmes’ new album is When I See You Smile, and when any of its twelve songs begin to play, its title starts to make a whole lot of sense. In harmony and lyricism the same, tracks like “Even If You Don’t,” “One Step Beyond,” “Guess Who,” “Making Heaven a Home,” and “Hurts Bad” communicate layers of personality unto the audience in a way that most pop music just isn’t able to anymore.
The countrified crooning our leading lady presents the verses with is almost incidental; in spirit and style, she has a crossover appeal that makes her music accessible to fans of rock as much as it is traditional Nashville buffs. Compositionally speaking, her techniques tether her career to that of the old guard, but that’s where the throwback energy ends in When I See You Smile – on the instrumental front, this is one of the more forward-thinking works I’ve listened to from a country artist of any age. There’s no pressing stop on the tracklist once you get started, and that’s not been the case with the majority of records I’ve heard this winter.
I love the depth of Holmes’ melodies in the title track and “Came Here to Dance Alone” especially, and overall I think she’s got a much more relaxed vibe than some of this material would initially suggest she would. Even in a stacked arrangement like “Hurts Bad” or even something like “It Ain’t Real If It Ain’t You,” she’s so casual and cool at the forefront of the mix that it’s hard to believe this isn’t at least her sophomore album.
The backing band doesn’t lose any of their thunder to Holmes, but there’s also never any doubts as to who is in charge around here and who is following the lead of the lyrics. The harmonies between our singer and her melodic backdrop in “Even If You Don’t,” “Encore,” “Devil Devil,” and “Deserves to Be Loved” tell a story almost independent from the verses, but this doesn’t create negative contrast in the underlying narrative of When I See You Smile. Instead, juxtaposition only advances the emotional subtext of every song here, and further adds to the allure of this singer/songwriter’s multifaceted approach to structure.
In slow songs and honky tonk jams alike, Kari Holmes sounds pretty on-point in When I See You Smile, and I have a gut feeling that this isn’t even going to be the highpoint of her output in 2022. Her presentation is incredibly elegant in this record, but it’s also not devoid of a significant vulnerability that isn’t possible to offer in a filtrated setting. She has stories to tell, and in everything from “Making Heaven a Home” to “One Step Beyond,” she’s unfurling verses that bind with the beats to make a country music melting-pot I haven’t seen or heard rivaled in the past year or so. Holmes is on fire right now, and it’s going to be hard for her rivals to keep up.