Kate Fenner is a Canadian musician, currently based in New York City. Her vocal stylings were described by the New York Times as having a "lusty, alternative, Joni Mitchell-ish sound". She was one of the primary singers and songwriters for the Canadian alternative rock band Bourbon Tabernacle Choir in the 1980s and 1990s. After its dissolution, Fenner continued performing as a duo with her former Bourbon bandmate Chris Brown. In 2000, she toured and sang with the Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip on the "Music @ Work" tour. Fenner released a solo album, Horses and Burning Cars, in 2003, followed by her second solo album, Magnet, produced by Chris Brown. In 2005 she opened for B.B. King on a tour through the American South and began to sing in performance pieces for the visual artist Joan Jonas. Her third album ‘ Middle Voice’ was released with long-term collaborator Tony Scherr with contributions from Bill Frisell, Chris Brown, Jason Moran, and Norah Jones. ‘ Dead Reckoning’ is released on January 15th and is an album packed with numbers about trauma, life, and death. Fenner’s currency is her powerful voice, emotion, and raw energy. Her voice is strong, yet there is a sense of fragility too as she sings about the various struggles we all must face.
‘My River’ is introduced by Jason Moran on piano before Fenner’s voice soars over the accompanying ensemble. The lyrics speak of love and emotions carried like on a river to the ocean which remembers.
‘Transit of Venus’ is a gentle, calypso-infused number, about missing someone, and remembering the little details even when the person you love is not perfect. Fenner’s vocal range is demonstrated on this number as it is on ‘Quiet Rider’ which is an enjoyable ballad. ‘Ghost Moon’ is an atmospheric song, the duet of guitar and voice dominating gently across a steadfast accompaniment. The change of mood in the middle section is interesting and there is almost anger here about seeking approval even in death. There is a country air to this number, with register changes and some gorgeous string backing.
‘That Fire’ is strong, powerful and carries a slow rock rhythm throughout the track as Fenner sings of desire and how thoughts travel to ideas that go beyond the mundane and every day around us. The black universe has the rim of light, you chose your sorrow and your despair, you emerge like a bird with the bright air’. The ensemble accompaniment grows strong, powerful and creates a sense of spiritual victory.
‘Torch’ is an intense, moving track about thinking you can save something but being unable to follow or stop what is going to happen. The haunting despair and power of the emotions are palpable. “I thought you could pray to a God and make your body get better and if that didn’t work, one day we would meet up again together,”
‘Cautionary Tale’ is a pared-back number with guitar, voice, and percussion while ‘The Hawk’ is about how love can take you to a place where you are afraid to look ‘down at the drop or up into the night’ - you do not want to let it go. ‘Son of A Gun’ and ‘received Wisdom’ see Fenner’s vocals backed by strong, well-honed piano and string arrangements. The bowed ‘cello solo on ‘Received Wisdom ‘ is beautiful and ‘Firefly’ asks about our identity and whether we truly know people.
Dead reckoning is an album that is impossible to slot neatly into a genre. It carries elements of folk, rock, pop, and popular music, Fenner being able to sing all these genres yet never lose her character or particularity.
She has an essence of past musicians yet is impossible to pin down where she settles in terms of influence – which makes her individual. At times, I thought of John Denver, particularly in the lyrical ‘Firefly’ but then again, I also thought of Mitchell and others. Fenner has something unique in her delivery, possibly explained by the intense emotion she imbues in her music.
Fenner herself explains about Dead reckoning, “ When my friend Mike was dying in December of 2019, I came across an Amy Hempel poem about the failure of language when faced with things like death—
“At the end, I wanted to comfort him. But what I said was, Sing to it. The Arab proverb: When danger approaches, sing to it.” Mike was not the first loss, nor was he to be the last, in the past few years of my life. My parents went, naturally; but it was the consecutive losses of my friends—bandmates, soulmates, mentors—that stung and bewildered; each one barely fifty years old when cruel variations of cancer made their way through my friends’ bodies, turning off all the lights. In some cases, I was fortunate enough to be with them through this process, allowed to love and care for them at this most intimate juncture. In every case, I was tempted by the idea that I could make it better for them. That I could give them something to take with them, and they could leave something behind for me to hold, something slight but durable to set me in my life. In the end, all I felt I did was walk them to the threshold and watch them disappear. The term “dead reckoning,” apart from it signifying in this case just what it sounds like, is a navigational strategy to recalculate your position by estimating the direction, the drift, and the distance you’ve travelled. I know life by definition is contoured by the loss of it. This time feels particularly burdened with loss, real and impending; maybe every time has felt that way. I’m left with love as the only defence—loving people and letting them know they were loved by you. ‘Dead Reckoning’ really is a reckoning during a period of seemingly endless loss and an attempt to determine a “way of living that is not waiting,” as I recently heard poet Jorie Graham say in an interview. Singing is my way of loving, loving even danger. Here I sing to my friends, my parents; their ghosts; and to you. I hope you can hear it." Her music explains the enormous sense of burden and loss Fenner has experienced during recent times, yet it has elegance, hope even and quality so, even though it came from grief, the music feels like a blessing. Fenner includes many luminaries of the US music scene on this recording including pianist Jason Moran, violinist Tomoko Omura, ‘cellist Augustin Uriburu, Tony Scherr on bass, and many more – an indication of the respect this artist is already held in and I feel we shall hear more from her. ‘ Grief is an artist with his painter’s eye for detail ‘ Fenner sings on ‘Transit of Venus’ and here, the artist is undoubtedly helped by an interpreter of the highest quality.