Having only recently been made aware of the seemingly inexhaustible charms of Kath Bloom, I’m surprised how quickly I feel qualified to make synoptic statements about her work. There isn’t a tremendous dearth of material to cover, but that’s not the reason it’s easy to feel capable when discussing Kath Bloom. The reason is largely attributable to Bloom’s almost supernatural ability to project warmth. Even when her lyrics are despondent and her singing meek, there’s a level of intimacy and comfort that is constant and impossible to miss. It’s not shocking that Bloom retreated from folk music several decades ago in order to raise her children; her music placates in a way that could easily be described as maternal, even when she’s singing to or about a romantic interest (as she frequently is). If she has a modern day male counterpart, it would be Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, who also manages to find touching levels of affection for, and humanity in, personal imperfections.
So it was only a matter of time before the current folk scene (stridently fond of their elders as they are) got around to paying tribute to Bloom, and lo and behold, we have Loving Takes This Course: A Tribute to the Songs of Kath Bloom. Fortunately, the folks at Chapter Music who lovingly compiled this double-disc set knew what they were doing when they chose artists to show their respect to Bloom. Disc one is entirely covers and disc two is their original counterparts.
Since the originals disc is made up of material so revered that it warrants a tribute album, let’s leave that aside for the moment and focus on the covers. Specifically, let’s start with Bill Callahan’s version of “My Baby/The Breeze,” because any discussion of this tribute album should begin by dealing with this masterful cover. Callahan seems like an odd choice for this collection considering his unaffected, stark singing contrasts with Bloom’s fragile, fluttering vocals, but Callahan utterly nails the song’s sentiment, mining each weary word for maximum emotional impact. The arrangement is typical for Callahan, which is to say courageously and appropriately spare, all the better to highlight his unmatchable baritone. It’s no hyperbole to say that “My Baby/The Breeze” alone justifies the existence of Loving Takes This Course.
The remainder of the covers disc might not match the heights reached by “My Baby/The Breeze,” but there are no real low points. Generally, the artists’ interpretations are timidly respectful, preferring to add little to the original rather than risk desecrating a sacred cow. For example, Mia Doi Todd’s “Ready Or Not” is no lemon, but it is really just her and an acoustic guitar, which is pretty far from reinventing the wheel. But given that Bloom’s music is largely sparsely arranged, usually to the benefit of the lyrical content, it makes enough sense to avoid dressing these songs up. After all, the weakest cover is, debatably, the most adventurous one. The Concretes, apparently unable to rein in their poppier tendencies, give “Come Here” a basic dance beat and an unfortunate flange effect. It’s the final song on the covers disc and it’s worst moment, leaving the listener with a bad taste in his/her mouth. That’s called questionable sequencing.
Which brings us to the originals. It’s not easy or necessary to nitpick over the content. I would have preferred it if ‘Who You Are” were included, but every Kath Bloom fan probably has their addendums. The fifteen songs that comprise the originals disc are well chosen, and probably the best place Kath Bloom neophytes could find to start. Loving Takes This Course, by simultaneously providing listeners with a sense of the scope of Bloom’s influence in addition to the actual influential material, is one of the more thoughtful and successful tribute albums to come out in quite a while.