With "this is the place?" Hand To Mouth have created not so much an album as a universe, an abstract expressionistic world that successfully breaks free from limitations of literal narrative and expected musical forms. It's unfair to label this a folk album, in the sense that it's not seemingly connected to or bound by the folk tradition, but though there's other instrumentation, the heart of Hand To Mouth's sound is still the interplay between Grace Hearn's expressive vocals and Michael Savage's adept guitar.
Hearn's voice is capable of a wide palette of colors, and she'll soar from intimate low tones to a powerful upper register in a single measure. Like Kate Bush or Tori Amos (though probably a better technical singer than both), Hearn's interpretations have the quality of seeming to be directed inward, and this suits the diary poem tone of the lyrics ("These are the colors I remember/This is the air that I breathe", from "Angels").
Savage is a talented guitarist, incorporating jazz chord voicings and open tunings into the music. He's equally smooth on both acoustic and electric instruments, recalling at moments Michael Hedges, Pat Metheny and Tuck (of Tuck & Patti), and he'll occasionally throw in some low notes on guitar synthesizer to tilt the planet a bit. His playing is intricate but never showy; he's content as instrumentalist to be the backdrop for Hearn's vocals (and her voice as musical instrument fits perfectly in the space provided).
As producer Savage fills out the sound with his own keyboards plus bass (Jack Miller & Michael Ertel) and electronic and real drums (Will Dowd & Rick Colfer). All the playing is precise and well thought out, again supporting the whole rather than drawing focus.
I'm hesitant to talk about the individual songs, like one might reviewing a Cheryl Wheeler record, because the album seems so much a complete entity. Hand to Mouth take the listener into a rich and complex world, and the achievement of this is the place? is that there are no bumps to bring us back to earth.
For more information on "this is the place?" write Hand to Mouth, P.O. Box 95361, Seattle, WA 98145.
[editor's note: Terry Kitchen is a singer-songwriter from Watertown, MA.
His newest release, "I Own This Town" is available on the Urban Campfire