Kaia Kater – Strange Medicine

It’s been a full six years since Kaia Kater’s last album, the exquisite Grenades, but she appears to have spent the time judiciously. Having undertaken a residency at the Canadian Film Centre, she’s broadened an already impressive skill set by composing TV and movie scores, which, in turn, now feed into the soundscapes of Strange Medicine.

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At the same time, the album finds Kater rediscovering the passion for banjo – she spent years studying Appalachian music in West Virginia – that made 2016’s Nine Pin so distinctive. The instrument foregrounds a number of songs here, though as part of larger arrangements that find space for inventive, jazz-like percussion, strings, loops, low-key brass and a smattering of electronica. The effect is often dizzyingly fresh and satisfyingly rich, as Kater explores influences as diverse as the West African kora and minimalist hero Steve Reich. “Fédon”, for instance, with guest Taj Mahal, stretches outwards from core banjo to bring semi-symphonic soul and jazz-blues into its artfully measured mix. “In Montreal” fuses a clawhammer figure to syncopated beats and a delicious Celtic fiddle break. “Mechanics Of The Mind” is a sinuous ensemble piece that manages to sound both musically involved and tastefully understated, feeling all the more powerful for its sense of restraint.

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Strange Medicine also runs deep and wide lyrically. These are songs that speak of misogyny, racism, the bloody legacy of colonialism and Kater’s place in the modern world. “The Witch”, featuring Aoife O’Donovan, uses the Salem witch trials to address institutionalised sexism, male perceptions of women and the venting of righteous anger. On “In Montréal”, Kater encounters visions of her former selves in the place of her birth, accompanied by fellow city native Allison Russell. It’s a conflicted portrait, as are “Floodlights” and the lovely “Maker Taker”, both of which examine Kater’s relationship with her own art. “I may not stay valuable/Unless I’m writing verses/And telling tragic stories,” she sings in her low, expressive voice. Whatever the context, Strange Medicine suggests that hers is a talent built to endure.

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