Kyle Craft is self-taught, not part of a musical family, and grew up in a small Louisiana town where no bands ever came to play. With all that in mind, he has no right to make a debut album this damn good.
Dolls of Highland, Craft’s ambitious debut, is being released 29 April on Sub Pop Records, the indie darling record label based in the Pacific Northwest, where Craft moved years ago to escape his hometown of Shreveport. He eventually returned home to record the album (playing most of the instruments himself) before heading back to his adopted home of Portland, Oregon, where it was mixed.
The atmosphere of “local boy coming home to confront ghosts of the past” seems to be the general theme running through Ghosts of Highland; at the very least, it was the jolt he needed to create such a huge, expansive, idea-stuffed debut. A chance purchase of a David Bowie hits compilation in his youth inspired Craft to pursue his calling, and the Bowie influence is one of many of the more obvious ones here. The glittery fingerprints of the Ziggy Stardust era are all over this album. Acoustic guitars anchor soaring melodies and a variety of analog instrumentation (Hammond B3, Leslie-drenched guitar, funhouse organ) recalls an earlier decade, yet it never sounds stale.
Craft may be a student of British rock — and he looks the part, resembling a cross between Roger Taylor and a young Syd Barrett — but his Louisiana roots show up on more than a few occasions. “Gloom Girl” is spiked with lazy New Orleans horns. The gorgeous “Lady of the Ark” includes an accordion solo (in addition to an irresistible, insistent Ronettes “Be My Baby” drum beat).
But the most impressive weapon in Craft’s arsenal is his singing voice, a soaring tenor that seems incapable of hitting a bum note. His knack for pop songcraft and production would be enough all by itself, but it’s delivered with a sterling set of pipes; like Freddie Mercury produced by Phil Spector.
“Pentecost” is the perfect place to discover this combination of influence and execution, if you’re on a time crunch. “Tell me what you gotta do / Tell me why / Would you push the bullet through?” he asks, as guitars chug along and organs simmer all around him.
While Bowie is an admitted influence (and Mercury an implied one), Bob Dylan creeps in on several occasions, too, which Craft has readily admitted. I personally don’t hear a direct Dylan influence — it’s more in terms of attitude. The guy who sneered “All I Really Want to Do” in 1964 definitely had an effect on Kyle Craft. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the album’s closing ballad, “Three Candles”, contains some Dylanesque harmonica, framed by a gentle acoustic arrangement.
“We used to dance / We used to do it all night / You and me and the Dolls of Highland / They cranked that radio loud”, Craft sings on the brief, wistful title track, as a drunken, rollicking piano fills the room. Dolls of Highland is the sound of a young man returning home to chronicle his small town roots with the use of his ample talents. It’s an exhilarating ride from start to finish.