The short version: ‘Open Book’ is true to its name, though it does suffer from a few production blemises.
- Favorite tracks: “Big Houses,” “Lullaby,” “Alice In Wonderland,” “The One,” “Escape”
- Least favorite track: “Gatsby”
- Rating: 6/10
The long version: If there’s one line from a song that’s going to stick with me this year, it’s “everybody’s worried ‘bout a good look, but they need to be worried about a good hook.”
Of course, given that nearly every outlet is focusing on the end of the decade, there’s two more quotes from the 2010s that I can say will stick with me: one is former Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton saying country artists need country radio in order to exist; the other is Keith Hill’s suggestion to remove female country artists from radio playlists to increase ratings. Sadly, all three quotes still apply to mainstream country music now, forcing certain artists to examine alternative avenues just for a chance to be heard.
An artist like Kalie Shorr, for example, hasn’t broken through in the traditional sense. From her involvement as one of the principle performers and champions of the Song Suffragettes songwriter rounds held in Nashville to releasing successful YouTube cover videos, she’s side-stepped radio airplay and provided good hooks to boot.
Given, too, that her debut album Open Book reportedly deals with both a messy breakup and the death of a family member, there’s certainly no plans to try for radio airplay anyway. Yet even if Shorr remains unsigned, Open Book provides the seeds and pieces to make for an interesting path ahead. Truthfully, it’s not a great debut album, but the flaws shown here can be tuned to further amplify a promising core. And given how much this album literally reads like an open book into Shorr’s life, she’s counting on catching listeners off guard.
Even if I’m not crazy about “Too Much To Say” as an individual song, for this album, it reads like a thesis statement before unraveling the full picture to the audience. But while some of the content here might “shock” audiences, Shorr isn’t relying on any dark humor to get her point across. It’s transgressive, for sure, but it’s not written in an exaggerated or oversold way, which might be why record labels have stayed away – there isn’t a veneer of artifice to build distance, nor is Shorr mincing words at any point here. Sure, she taps into her love of literature for songs like “Alice In Wonderland” and “Gatsby,” but the most gutting tracks come when Shorr goes beyond the events of last year to fill in the deeper details of why she is who she is now. She’s honest about her abandonment issues with her father throughout this album, so when she’s caught in the aftermath of a bad breakup on tracks like “Messy” or “The One,” she knows can’t completely fault the other party for how badly things ended.
Go back further, however, and there’s “Escape,” a candid look at where everyone in her family went wrong along their own paths, causing Shorr to break away. Yet on paper, even if there’s a defiantly judgmental tone running across that track, a look beneath the surface reveals a domino effect of bad decisions, where Shorr’s siblings likely found themselves in her shoes at one point wanting their own freedom. And while Shorr might need to break away just for the sake of her sanity, she also knows that running isn’t a true escape.
Still, at least there’s temporary solace found in escapism, like how Shorr and her mother drove around after church on Sunday into nicer neighborhoods to wonder what it’d be like to live there on “Big Houses.” And the thing is, it’s not so much the fantasy of being rich that’s most appealing to Shorr, but rather the fantasy of pure normalcy. But there’s also “Alice In Wonderland,” where Shorr disrupts the titular fairy tale in her mind to bring her back down to reality, or “The World Keeps Spinning,” where it doesn’t even feel like Shorr has time to mourn her sister because the world around her isn’t tuned in to her story, and thus moves on while she’s left to cope with it all. Part of this, too, comes through in Shorr’s delivery on this album. She doesn’t have a world-weary harshness to her voice that makes it seem like she’s accepted everything and moved on; she sounds like someone still trying to understand the world around her and, most importantly, herself.
Even with that said, however, Open Book also scans as inconsistent in this regard. Shorr exhibits not only a blunt framework with her approach, but also a well-worn maturity that suggests a wisdom beyond her years as she comes face-to-face with her inner demons. Yet whereas the album tilts into fantasy references by ripping away the veneer on “Alice In Wonderland,” tracks like “F U Forever” and “Gatsby” scan as poor missteps where the poetic flow feels clunky, and can only be described as immature and well below the potential Shorr shows here. If Shorr was making music with an adolescent focus, it’d be understandable, but that’s why the stabs at pop-country turn dissonant in a weird way from the darker material here. And on an album that almost tells too much of her story, “Thank God You’re A Man” scans as a moment that neither fits in nor feels like much beyond a poor rewrite of Ariana Grande’s “God Is A Woman.” Considering, too, that “Lullaby” ends on a welcome note of closure for Shorr as she works to live with her past, “Angry Butterfly” seems like an odd way to end the album – a track where the wounds are opened back up and doesn’t provide the same impact.
Open Book suffers most, however, from a few bad production and instrumental choices. For an album trying to appeal to early 2000s pop-punk with some country undertones, the production choices can scan as a tad inconsistent. Tracks like “The One” or “Lullaby” may start with cleaner atmospheric tones, but by the time the soft dynamics give way to tracks with heavier, ragged guitar work that let Shorr let loose, vocally, it leads to a much better fit than the overly polished tones of tracks like “Gatsby” or “Messy.” On the note of vocals, however, while Shorr is sometimes pitchy and her flow is rough on tracks like “F U Forever,” “Gatsby,” “Vices,” and “Messy,” she’s also a commanding presence behind the microphone. But when the vocal production completely buries her on “Angry Butterfly” or the backing vocals feel incredibly thin on “Messy” and “Too Much To Say,” it leads to moments that should be tighter than they actually are. Honestly, the more ragged, rock-leaning approach taken on tracks like “The One,” “Lullaby,” or “Alice In Wonderland” fits her best, especially when she knows how to cultivate atmosphere with great melodies and hooks.
It is understandable, however, why Open Book doesn’t always opt for those darker moments. “Gatsby” is, after all, a moment where Shorr pretends to be happy for the sake of appearances, but the production on a track like that and “Vices” still sounds way too chipper. And when it comes to the sound, there are good compositional instincts, but the production and stylism both need a better focus. Still, Open Book shows Shorr as a very promising songwriter with a handle on emotional nuance and empathy, and a willingness to be honest with her material. And considering that debut albums are typically meant to introduce artists to the general public, this is a good first step, and one gets the feeling Shorr only wrote one chapter for now instead of giving listeners the entire book.