Kimmi Bitter: Take Me Back
At the first click of play, Kimmi Bitter’s upcoming release Take Me Back represents itself as a kick ass, drag yourself out of bed, and get the day started kind of compilation. After all, the five song EP opens with a drum beat that could convince even the latest of night owls to start the day earlier than we want. Still, we’re reacquainted with a good dose of the sentimentalist balladry Bitter showcased in her debut EP, West Side Twang, released February 2019. A singer-songwriter with a passion for classic country, Kimmi always knew she wanted to be on a stage someday. Overcoming a debilitating case of stage fright to get there, she has now found her calling in what she considers the “Retrogressive Movement” of country music.
San Diego, California doesn’t have many local classic country artists grace the stages of its city’s concert halls. Until recently, the audience for this musical genre questionably didn’t exist in force in that area. As a native of San Diego, that lack of audience, combined with her affinity for 50’s rockabilly and blues compelled Ms. Bitter to begin her career as the founder and front for the indie blues-rock band, The Night Howls. While she relishes her time performing in that field of music, she attributes her having an old soul as the catalyst for urging her toward her definitive ballad twang. Although, Take Me Back carries in its recollections of the sort music she performed early on; it also flaunts Kimmi’s soulful, visceral elucidations of modern-day vintage country ballads.
A passionate believer in the “less is more” approach to making great music, she says music should be all about showcasing an artist’s talents, embracing the individual imperfections of each performance, and reconnecting with a human aspect of music that has been all but lost in today’s watered down, heavily over-perfected compositions. Instead of recording in the manner most music is produced nowadays, Bitter and her band shirk the use of modern-day technology and reject the idea of re-recording tracks to fix the imperfections she says occur with every performance. To her, the practice of excessively perfecting music in the studio strips it of its raw energy and pure talent. By contrast, she and her band record just the way the greats of yesteryear did, live band to analog tape. Staying true to her minimalist retro technology roots, several recordings of each song are captured and the best recorded performance is the one that makes the cut to the record, any small imperfections be damned. Kimmi is confident it’s those aspects that gives music its soul.
Reminiscent of the old school era country-rock she credits as being one of her obsessions, “Work Like A Man” is an updated throwback, if you will, that gives audience to what could be considered a present-day plight many women find themselves contemplating. While that individual plight can be left up to one’s own interpretation, by Kimmi’s own account, “Work Like A Man” is a proclamation meant to assert that many women do still appreciate men for the qualities and traits that make them... men. Opening with the line, “Baby, you know I’ll take care of you, but not until you have paid your dues,” Bitter recounts that this is not only a reversion to the songwriting style of the time this song plays tribute to, but also an admission that there are still women who want to take care of their partners and in return expect them to reciprocate. A homage to Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues,” Bitter hopes her listeners will draw the connection between the two.
It’s when the jauntiness of “Work Like A Man” tips its final notes towards the album’s second song, “Into Blue,” I begin to grasp the gracefulness of a voice that sits almost effortlessly among the lamenting timbres that define country music: the soulful wailing of a steel guitar, a simplistic cadence of rhythm, and vocals that beckon the twang of bygone days. A ballad fashioned straight from the pulse of timeless country love songs, it’s hard to believe this song began its journey as an indie rock tune, first performed by Ms. Bitter’s band, The Night Howls. “Into Blue” decoratively describes the process of falling in love and the glory of infatuation. The title reckons it a lamentation of love’s heart break, but Kimmi reckons blue as a thing of beauty and talentedly purposes it in continued references to all things blue and wonderful.
“Why did Hank Williams have to die?” “Take your sell outs and throw them out the door!” If those two lines don’t describe what so many of us feel about music today, just keep listening and you’ll hear a song packed full of references to what Ms. Bitter credits as the demise of classic country music. She and I chatted a bit about a topic that I have long debated to anyone who cares to discuss the evolution of the country music genre - the progression of country music as it seems to follow the path of Top 40 hits, but at a decade’s pace behind. We both agreed that the sounds and styles we heard from the pop/rock/hip-hop scene a full decade ago are now working their way into the pop country of today, and to her, that’s just not what country music should be. “Country Ain’t Country No More” brings back the heavy keyed veracity that is most often heard in oldies performed by Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard, both on Bitter’s roster of influencers.
“When You Know” is perhaps the best example of Ms. Bitter’s songwriting process. Most often one of Ms. Bitter’s songs is born out of a title that she envisions and then the lyrics follow suit. As she sat in a bar one night, she says she found herself enmeshed in a conversation with the woman seated beside her about love and longing. The woman had spent many happy years with her partner, Johnny, and when Kimmi questioned her regarding how she knew he was the one to spend a lifetime with, the woman declared, “When you know, you know!” Thus, the title of the fourth song on the album, “When You Know.” It’s another stripped-down ballad that keeps in line with the richness of analog sound and speaks to knowing when your love for another is strong enough to stand the test of time.
“Country Blues” rounds out the collection. Opening with the splendid acoustic rhythm guitar, its sleepy sounds resonate soulfully, softly... graciously, as it delightfully accentuates an impeccable combination of back-up vocals and instrumentals that embody the lyrics they are supporting. Ms. Bitter’s vocals give nod to what is surely a bit of cussedness in her soul as she expresses her devotion to and hankering for a sound that has shaped her into the artist she is today. A call out to the days when country music’s magnificence depended solely on the talent of its artists. Days that, even for those of us not born in that era, beckon us to return to their simplicity. Kimmi likens this yearning as a longing to return to a time when people felt connected, community, camaraderie, and music spoke to all these things.
From its foot tapping first notes to the last of its sing along vocals, Ms. Bitter’s collection of songs leaves me with no doubt as to her throwback inspirations and serves as a surprising reverence to a sound that has been terribly neglected by most of today’s artists. I have to admit my initial round through Take Me Back sat me in a place of contemplation, but as my ears grew more accustomed to the exquisiteness of talent not covered up by technology, and as I started to delve into the world of non-remastered music, the beauty of Take Me Back took hold. Mixed and engineered by Mike Butler and mastered by Jamal Ruhe, the album was recorded at Singing Serpent over the span of about three days. Its release date of September 14, 2019 will be immediately accompanied by a nearly two-month stint on the road to promote the EP. Of course, you can grab a copy of Take Me Back if you’re lucky enough to catch Kimmi and her band in concert. If not, it will be made available on its release date to the streaming platform of choice.
William Farnsworth - bass
Jody Bagley - piano and background vocals
Steven Crowle - guitar with the exception of “When You Know,” banjo, dobro and mandolin on “County Blues”
Cheyne Dolly - drums
Kevin Ryan - pedal steel
Bob Ryan - guitar on “When You Know”
Jerod Dulaney - background vocals on “When You Know” and “Country Blues”
Album Art Courtesy of Willis Farnsworth & Jamee Hanson