Modern country is multidimensional. From the singer to the songs on their own, there’s a lot to be said about the transition from singularity – or purism as some would call it – towards a more evolved, hybrid style of country music that embodies as much folk, pop, and Americana as it does the foundations of a classic Nashville sound. Kari Holmes is a player who understands the importance of playing to her audience and, more importantly, adopting a stylistic profile that fits her voice organically, and this is precisely why her new album When I See You Smile feels as naturally strong as it does. Where others are struggling to embrace the fine-tuned elements that are comprising a new wave of progressive country jams, this is a player prepared to take her place in the center of the spotlight.
There’s nothing one-note about the vocal Holmes is putting up in “Deserves to Be Loved,” “Making Heaven a Home,” “Guess Who,” or the brilliantly soft “Just to Hear Your Name,” and I like that she isn’t afraid to be a little indulgent at the microphone in any portion of When I See You Smile. She hits these hooks with everything she’s got at a time when minimalism has been a disturbingly popular trend, and instead of giving us a taste of what we would hear in a concert setting, I get the impression she’s producing as close to a raw, live juggernaut as is possible from within the confines of a recording studio.
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“Devil Devil,” “Encore,” and one of my favorite tracks from the record, “Hurts Bad,” see Holmes utilizing rhythm as a means of accentuating her lyrics rather than as an agent of progressive exclusively, which on its own puts her leaps and bounds ahead of her competition right now. She seems genuinely eager to experiment with the limitations of her genre, and yet there’s nothing here to indicate that she wants to abandon the core values of a more traditional country sound just for the sake of scoring some airplay. Contrarily, songs like “Even If You Don’t” and the title cut in When I See You Smile project an affection for the old school that can still exist in a post-establishment Nashville – provided they’re being presented by someone as charismatic as this young woman is.
Americana is getting a second wind like nobody’s business right now, but I can’t say that I’ve heard another player doing it justice quite as well as Kari Holmes is at the moment. I can’t wait to hear what she’s going to come up with next, but at any rate, I think it’s undeniable when listening to When I See You Smile that Holmes is onto a firm formula for songcraft she could easily ride into the primetime if promoted in the right fashion. When I See You Smile lives up to its optimistic, warm titling, and although key tracks like “It Ain’t Real If It Ain’t You” and “Hurts Bad” stand out as obvious singles, there’s really no filler to be found in this amazingly listenable LP.