Album Review: Kate Davis – Fish Bowl

[ANTI-; 2023]

It’s Kate Davis’ past that makes her present particularly interesting. An immensely talented jazz player (“Prodigy is a strong word, but I definitely was trained”), her youth was punctuated by stints in the Portland Youth Philharmonic and the Grammy Jazz Ensemble. By the time of her high school graduation, she had won the Presidential Scholar in the Arts Award and a place in the Manhattan School of Music. As attention seemed to swirl to a head – performances at Carnegie Hall, a lead guest spot doing a viral cover of “All About That Bass” with Postmodern Jukebox – Davis edged away from the jazz and classical scene. Made uneasy by performing jazz as a white woman and the misogyny of the American songbook (“I was a caricature,” she told OPB), she hid away to redefine herself and the music she wanted to make.

Re-emerging with a hell of a co-songwriting credit (for Sharon Van Etten’s “Seventeen”), she soon followed suit with her debut album as an indie-pop artist under her own name; 2019’s Trophy. It wasn’t so much a rejection of her training and experiences that came before, but rather an unexpected step in a direction few would have anticipated. Her skill as a jazz musician is evident in Trophy, as it is in her new album, Fish Bowl: an impeccable sense of timing, inventive strands of melody, and a strong sense of intuition as to what a song needs to stay lively. At its best, Fish Bowl rides an effervescent energy that sweeps you from one sugary moment to the next. 

Fish Bowl’s best moments jolt with an infectious brightness. “People Are Doing”’s punchy pep swirls together a flurry of acoustic guitars and kinetic drums, while the title track utilises a sardonic sense of humour to sharpen its glossy edges. When Davis plays the downtrodden loser on “Ride or Die” (“I feel like a crummy guy / A shrivelled fucked french fry”) she knows not to lose herself in this state, blustering upwards come the end of the chorus. There are also moments where Davis keeps the music veering into interesting new places. “Call Home” evokes Neutral Milk Hotel as a psychedelic guitar solo enters the picture, while “Saw You Staring”’s deadpan shoegaze chorus is a whole avenue of sound that Davis feels perfectly at home in.

The album’s downside is that Davis is not always as clear and commanding as she could be. There are times when the lyrical narratives get a little lost in themselves, and following the conceptual story can seem to take a bit more work than one would like. “Here is a spirit that only I understand, because I made her,” she says of the album’s central character FiBo, and unfortunately sometimes it does feel a little like you are missing an in-joke or a connecting thread in a story. Without a little reading, it likely wouldn’t be apparent to a casual listener that these were songs sung from the perspective of someone else.

Still, taking the tracks at face value doesn’t hamper the effects they draw out. “Consequences” actually rings out that bit more poignantly when you consider it being Davis reckoning with her own mortality; “it’s scary to realise the reasons why / you wanna die,” she sings with something of a lump in her throat. Opening track “Monster Mash” conveys a world turning on its creator/curator, but the whole thing reads like a fun take of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “I never could control myself / Is there anybody there / Who wouldn’t be scared of me?,” she yelps with an aim for empathy. Even “Fructify”’s woozy aura and the distracted gauzy ambience at the end of “Reckoning” are themselves sonic moments that stick in your head. 

Not all moments on Fish Bowl hit perfectly or land in expected ways, but it does keep you on your toes throughout its relatively short runtime. It’s also witty and inventive too, Davis leaning into the humour of her delivery and the zany adventurism of her world building. Like her debut, Fish Bowl doesn’t quite overwhelm and overshadow Davis’ backstory, but there’s a big “yet” to be added to that sentiment. Fish Bowl is another mark in a solid and small catalogue where she is carving out her own future and more music from Davis will soon make her history the least interesting thing about her music.