Album Review: Katy Kirby – Cool Dry Place

[Keeled Scales; 2021]

Texas may be enduring a cold storm, but its very own Katy Kirby has arrived with a heartwarming debut album that is here to melt the dreadfully frigid days away. This is not to say Kirby is here to qualm listeners by way of comforting words of affirmation or touching panoramic images of romance – she does quite the opposite, actually. Kirby’s years-in-the-making first record, Cool Dry Place, sees the now-Nashville-based artist paint pictures that are pained and honest rather than pillowy and bright. Instead, the heartwarming nature of her music emits from a core comprised of clever candidness and an expertise at writing heartfelt ballads and infectious melodies.

Through mere concept and casual listening, there’s nothing immediately special about Katy Kirby’s debut. Cool Dry Place fits nicely within the safe singer-songwriter/indie-folk genre. Nonetheless, more attentive listening unravels and reveals an impressive and easily likeable artist. Her witty attitude as a lyricist is infectious and compelling, even if her stories of confusion, change, and pain are painted with broad strokes.

On the gently urgent “Juniper”, this heart-on-her-sleeve Texan sings of impending doom and nagging isolation while serrated guitar fuzz soars through patches of heavy clouds. “You don’t need a reprimand to know / Just when a vengeful God will strike her blow / there’s a bad weather warning on the radio,” she insists. “You’re on your own; you’re on your own.” The seemingly bright track is the first of many moments on Cool Dry Place where Kirby disguises pain, trauma, and post-millennial anxiety with an agreeable ribbon of tuneful vocals, guitars, and much more.

Another indie pop earworm, “Peppermint” continues to deceitfully but effectively drive home feelings of disconnection, this time between her and a friend whom Kirby says is “disappearing off a ledge…” Of course, the cruel fate of this relationship sets in: “I guess he left the way he came in…” In line with the contrasting qualities of “Juniper”, “Pepperment” strings together buoyant elements to communicate a guise of stability. But, on this track, her guitar is shrouded by a warm, considerably lo-fi milieu, while horns modestly chime in to dance alongside the song’s jaunty drums and groovy bass.

Album closer “Fireman” takes on a similar tone to an even brighter and more animated effect, as Kirby continues to seek intimacy through companionship, this time with a fireman. Unfortunately – or perhaps unsurprisingly, given how Kirby’s relationships have manifested in the other songs – these undying feelings are not reciprocated. “Sometimes I try to take his hand / And he’ll flinch away and tell me / ‘Don’t do something you will regret’,” Kirby reveals. The telling signs of a toxic relationship wear heavily in the back of her mind, and while she admits the one-sided reality of this relationship, she constructs her character with a sense of naïveté, cooing with an oddly cheerful tone, “My baby is a fireman / And I never will get tired of him.” Once again, Kirby’s exceptional songwriting skills are on full display as she wields her self-awareness and coy sense of humor with aplomb.

As Kirby continues to disguise her conflicting and yearnful heart with an overwhelming anthemic quality throughout the record, one thing does emerge: the influence of contemporary worship music on Kirby. With her musical upbringing rooted within the Bible belt, the singer-songwriter has admitted that she “can hear [herself] negotiating with that worship-ish music, fighting that deeply internalized impulse to make things that are super pleasant or approachable.” Though she aims to resist the superficiality that plagues worship music from leaking into her own sound, her combative attempts fall short – but, honestly, this is a good thing!

“Secret Language”, for example, may be the most heavy-handed reference to Kirby’s beginnings in the church, though in style, not topically. Along with the equally moving “Portals”, “Secret Language” is easily the most stunning moment on the entire album. Borrowing, “I heard there was a secret chord / That David played” from “Hallelujah”, this track manages to revel in its own unique majesty as Kirby builds the song into a cathartic masterpiece that rises and falls like a giant crashing wave. 

Intentional or not, Kirby reclaims her musical roots through the means of relatability and a genuine touch, connecting to her generation on topics like motherhood, late capitalism, and disintegrating relationships. By presenting her authentic self, even if she’s occasionally tongue-in-cheek, Kirby provides a collection of songs actually worthy of being sung communally.

Clocking in under 30 minutes with only nine tracks, Cool Dry Place is a lovely breeze of a listen, and truthfully, a nearly flawless record. Except for a couple of moments of autotune and lo-fi weirdness, Kirby generally plays it safe, musically, which leaves one wanting a tiny bit more from a talent like herself. Now that we’ve got the safe debut record out of the way, it’d be interesting to see if Kirby will take a more experimental direction with her sophomore record.