Kevin Kling speaks like he’s a little kid jumping up and down, giddy with enthusiasm to tell you something. As is the case with most storytellers, the impact of Kling’s stories comes as much from how he tells the stories as from the stories themselves. Kling has a unique voice, with a heavy Minnesota accent, and an equally unique way of speaking, one which is both hyper and calm at the same time. He paints pictures in a sublimely detailed way, drawing you backward into his childhood.
Both Kling’s newest CD Stories off the Shallow End and his recently resissued debut Home and Away contain stories which draw heavily from Kling’s childhood in Minnesota. Kling, who achieved his current success mostly through theatre work in Minneapolis and radio spots on NPR’s All Things Considered, builds his stories around an extreme sense of fascination with the world around us. While that doesn’t preclude him from drawing on his adult life (which he often does), it does make it logical that childhood, when everything seems new, is fertile ground for his art.
The latest CD, Stories off the Shallow End, begins with this description: “There was never a time I felt further from fear than Christmas eve, riding in the wayback of a 1965 Impala Station Wagon. My mom and dad are in the front seat, my sister in the back, and me in the way back, surrounded by blankets and pillows and wrapping paper and packages and my brother…who is tolerable when he sleeps”. That story, “A View from the Card Table”, takes listeners right into a family Christmas for 20 minutes. Kling captures many of the universal Christmas dilemmas, from the anticipation about whether you’ll get that present you want the most (in this case, squirrel monkeys) to eating dinner with all sorts of unusual relatives whom you seldom see. The genius with this story, as with all of Kling’s stories, is the way that he hooks you with whimsy, humor and scenes that will recall your own life, and then weaves a story filled with bittersweet, real portraits of how human beings relate to each other. “A View from the Card Table” describes people and their holiday traditions in really funny terms, but also includes a youngster’s heartfelt musings about God: “I start thinking…Jesus is our savior? I mean, don’t you have to be in big trouble to be needed to be saved? I mean, doesn’t a drowning person need to be saved? And Jesus is constantly having to come to earth to save us! What does that mean?”
Stories off the Shallow End includes seven stories; the first one is the longest, yet several of the others take their time in pacing if not actual length. Five deal with childhood or young-adulthood. “Snow Day”, which begins with a litany of school closings coming from a radio, recalls the joy that comes with having a day off school. “Minnesota” is a quick travelogue about the state from a child’s perspective (fishing, hockey, games), which also gets across the sense of belonging to a community. “Marching Band” is about exactly that — Kling’s trying stint playing in the junior-high band. And “Valentine” is a sweet, wistful love letter to a childhood crush. The CD is rounded out by two “adult” tales which retain the others’ feelings of joy and wonder: “Dogs”, about the lessons you can learn from your pet dogs, and “My Brother’s Bachelor Party”, which tells of a pre-wedding trip to a baseball game with the same ecstatic eye for detail as any of the stories from childhood.
Kling’s debut CD, Home and Away, originally released in 1994 on the now-defunct Gang of Seven spoken-word label, was reissued by Minneapolis’ East Side Digital label the same time that they released Stories. Though recorded seven years apart, the two albums are more similar than different. Kling’s style of storytelling remains consistent over the years, and both CDs capture it well. The only difference in terms of production is that Home and Away includes occasional sound effects, used mostly as segues between stories, while the only sound present on Stories is Kling’s voice.
Home and Away is divided into two acts. Act I is the more fast-paced of the two. It includes eight tracks, mostly under five minutes long, which tell stories mostly from his childhood. In a way, Act I of Home and Away is more conventionally autobiographical. Taken as a whole, it gives a more complete sense of what his life, especially his young life, has been like. “Painting”, for example, begins, “I grew up in a ranch-style rambler home, just like the ranch-style rambler home next to ours, like the one next to theirs, like the one next to theirs as far as your eyes could see”. Other stories deal with the medical condition that made one of his arms shorter than the other (“Shriners”), he and his dad being struck by lightning (“Lightning”), going to Church (“Church”), and the year his voice changed (“The Loons”).
Act II collects five longer stories. Two give a detailed portrait of his father (“Dad I”, “Dad II”), while the other three detail trips abroad (“Australia”, “Czechoslovakia”, “Rio”). These have a more current perspective — that of an adult — yet are no less “mature” in the conventional sense of being serious or restrained. Kevin Kling will always be a kid at heart, and it shows as much in the way he uses words and the way he speaks them as in his worldview, one filled with awe at the odd things people do and the way the world is. Whether speaking as an adult or as he remembers being as a child, Kling is always playfully poking at the places and people around him, asking questions in a way that is both delightfully humorous and touching.