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Album Review: Kiah’s ‘Pensive Pop’ is Rich with Transformative Power

By Rey Roldan

Covers are tricky for any artist.

If you do a note-for-note carbon copy, you’re deemed as uninspired. If you stray too far, you piss off the purists and gate-keeping lovers of the original. But if you’re crafty, like Amythyst Kiah is on her new EP Pensive Pop, you straddle the line, keeping everyone happy. And really, that’s just part of Kiah’s beauty and charm: she knows that balance and she tightropes it really well.

Kiah’s current career trajectory of a GRAMMY nomination for “Best Roots Song” and “Song of the Year” for the 2019 Folk Alliance International Awards might convince you that she was raised on roots, blues, folk… stuff that would nudge her towards the Americana-queendom for which she’s been groomed.

But on Pensive Pop­—a collection of songs that shaped and inspired her—some of the artists she’s chosen to cover would fit better as 90s and 00s dorm wall posters than they would on stage at the Ryman. The four song EP tinkers with Tori Amos’ glorious non-album cut “Sugar,” the early punk-pop of Green Day’s “Hitchin’ A Ride,” and the tragic goth of Joy Division’s iconic “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Kiah even throws in a guilty-pop-pleasure, taking a run at Katy Perry’s twee politics with “Chained to the Rhythm,” perhaps to show us that she’s not all safety pins and Manic Panic hair dye and, like many of us, has a sweet tooth for pastel-colored cotton candy once in a while.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

Retaining healthy hints of the original tracks in her unfettered and full-throated vocals while tweaking them just enough to wholeheartedly seem like her own, Kiah’s versions are watercolor-splashed interpretations—representative enough that anyone familiar with the original will say, “Oh yeah… I hear it,” but twisted enough not to be an unnecessary paint-by-numbers exercise. Her approach isn’t to mimic and mime but to honor and exalt, interpolating her own voice into the sometimes well-worn narrative of the original compositions.

Decelerating the punk stomp of Green Day’s “Hitchin’ A Ride” to a mesmeric and contemplative pace, Kiah interprets Billie Joe Armstrong’s tale of temptation amidst sobriety into an atmospheric meditation that highlights the couplet “Troubled times, you know I cannot lie / I’m off the wagon and I’m hitchin’ a ride,” to amplify that struggle. She hammers home this desperation even more palpably by turning Green Day’s defiant crowd vocal outro of “Don’t know where to go” into a rudderless mantra. The hopeless vulnerability that she weaves is a masterstroke of her interpretative genius; to turn a punk anthem into such a haunting soul assessment is thrilling to witness.

Her exhilarating rendition of Tori Amos’ B-side “Sugar”—an Amos fan favorite to this day—carries this concept most successfully. The makeover that Kiah applies to Amos’s moody and sensual, piano-driven track is remarkable, reinterpreting it as a rollicking banger that turns the gentle and crystalline refrain of “Sugar… He brings me sugar” into an adamant call to arms. Punctuating the song with a searing guitar, it rings anthemic and fierce.

While the other two tracks—Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm” and the preternaturally iconic, loveless paean “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division—might underscore her quirky, seemingly disparate choices, it’s her gift for deconstructing  the source materials and reorganizing them as her own that makes Kiah such a roots powerhouse. By stripping away the pop artifice of Perry’s saccharine fluff while retaining the melodic thread that makes the tune such a relentless earworm, she transforms “Chained to the Rhythm” into a hearty rocker that channels the ferocity of Joan Armatrading and the spirit of Pete Townsend, (who, incidentally, saw her performing on Kimmel and ultimately demanded her support a recent Who tour). 

The level of bravery and confidence she must possess to take on a revered classic like “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is, by itself, astounding… but to do it in an acoustic fashion that can give a goth like me pause is the real test of her abilities.  That she imbues so much love and respect in the source material is note-worthy and authentic. 

It’s not as easy as it might sound. Only someone with an intense connection to the songs themselves could transcend genres and keep adherents to the originals within grasp. This sort of authenticity is what creates fans, in which case, she can count one more right here in her camp.

It’s embarrassing to say that Rey Roldan has been writing about music since 1988. He’s written for dozens of publications such as American Songwriter, The Aquarian Weekly, MeanStreet, Cake, Boston Rock, Synthesis, and was editor of a handful more, like The Improper Bostonian, Fromage: Not for the Lactose Intolerant, Honey, and Tempest. These days, he makes his dosh being a publicist by day and a music writer by night. He resides in Weehawken, NJ with his dog.