C.J. Boyd is one man with no city. For 10 years, the bassist travelled around the United States on what was dubbed an ‘infini-tour’, visiting every state at least once and playing with a huge slew of musicians along the way. To cap off the tour, Boyd took on an extraordinary project, in which he chose one song for each of the 51 states, each one a cover version of a song by an artist from that state – every one of the original artists being one Boyd has shared a stage with. The recording location for each song would also have to be in that particular state, as well as the guest musicians playing on the recording. The outcome is Kin Ships, a surreal, near-ambient, 4-hour long journey across the Americana.
In many ways, Kin Ships resembles an odd, disembodied, sometimes dreamlike trip through the dusty roads less travelled of the states. A subtly epic, though also quite exhausting, journey, perhaps much like the one Boyd himself has no doubt made during his tour. Occasional spoken word samples crop up throughout, as if brief glimpses of lives encountered along the way or overheard conversations you weren’t quite meant to hear.
Sonically, opener “Little Warrior”, Eleanor Murray cover and representative for Washington, sets a particular tone for the record, one that it rarely strays from throughout its run time. Spare, slightly uncertain acoustic strums emerge from a hazy bed of woodwinds and strings, which periodically swell and recede, but almost feel like a constant, living soundscape that hangs in the background. This rich background remains throughout parts of the album, often resembling something like a still image of dust settling in a sunlit room. At times it works well, such as on “Silver Silk” (Nelly Kate, North Carolina), where the bed of hazy instrumentation swells unnervingly in the second half with a controlled uneasiness, leaving a sickly dissonant backing to hanging in the air, like an uncomfortable dream.
However, there are times too, where it feels unnecessarily cluttered, like on the Sharon Van Etten (New Jersey) cover “Give Out”, where the swelling instrumentation dampens the acoustic chords, while his wandering vocal doesn’t quite have the impact to carry through the song’s sentiment. Additionally, there is also very little in the way of percussion on the record, which adds to the viscous, slow-moving, borderline-ambient feel of the journey, and leaves Boyd’s bass playing as the anchor that holds these songs and soundscapes in place. Sometimes plucked, sometimes bowed, and sometimes accompanied by tapping or snapping of the strings as a minimal percussive effect, the bass has a comforting and homely sound to it.
Truth be told, for much of the record, the songs retain a fairly uniform sound – though not without certain subtle details and variations, like the xylophone on “Shelly”, or the E-Bow playing throughout, while others like the odd phrase, seem to float on the edge of the periphery. It makes it all the more apparent when there is a break from this sound, such as on the relentlessly cynical “Dropout Generation” (Hana Zara, Nebraska), with its sentiments about corporate-packaged rebellion and a bleak, empty existence for the titular generation fittingly accompanied by grey, dirge-like instrumentation.
“River Babies” (Harm, Alaska) builds from a low-key intro into an intense, winding poem that sounds almost medieval in its chilling repetition. Elsewhere, he takes one of the less interesting Angel Olsen (Missouri) songs, “Enemy”, and adorns it with harp and string arrangements, complementing its otherwise sparse acoustic chords, while Boyd’s vocal (again paired with a female vocalist) takes it into Leonard Cohen territory. And after an overall mostly uneventful first quarter, “Not at Home” (Peter Broderick, Oregon) feels like a refreshing, bright awakening, with its glimmering guitar runs, while the instrumentation seems to have altogether more focus.
“Boulevards” (Dixie Dirt, Tennessee) is another of the more intriguing songs, a vocal duet anchored by Boyd’s pulsating bass and with a subtly dark feel, as if the song is physically in black and white, a depiction of disillusion in a dead-end country town.
Boyd’s own singing, admittedly, at points, leaves something to be desired. While he remains fairly restrained in many cases, with a gruff, low-key vocal (often accompanied by a female vocalist), there are points where he really lets go – “Leave Here” (Fil Corbitt, Nevada) may be the most naked display of his vocal – though he sounds passionate, he strains on every syllable, nearly going off-key, as well as on the Dirty Projectors (New York) cover “Not Having Found” (he also covers former Dirty Projectors bassist Nat Baldwin elsewhere). It comes to the point where it is often welcome when he is joined by an additional vocalist to mellow the effect somewhat.
Perhaps one of the key moments of the record comes towards the end, with Boyd’s rendition of An Historic’s “Song for Ferguson” (Connecticut). Originally written in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in the titular town of Missouri, and the subsequent acquittal of his shooter; this arrangement lends the song a palpable sense of tension and anguish that complements the quiet dread and resignation of the original. It is also notably one of a very few songs on the album to be backed with drums, which only emphasises the urgency, as one of the few political moments on a largely neutral album.
The long journey draws to a close with a meditative instrumental dedicated to “The Outlying Territories of the US Empire”. While as a whole, Boyd refrains from making overt political statements on the album, they do occasionally seep through (especially on “Song for Ferguson”) and this somewhat mournful outro is comprised of spoken word samples of the people of Puerto Rico, and a John Oliver report, highlighting the plight of the island’s people, the horrific poverty that envelops them, and the government’s mishandling of the situation. It makes for a forlorn and thought-provoking ending to the project.
As a concept, Kin Ships is most definitely an admirable piece of work. The amount of time and effort that no doubt went into assembling such a sprawling project is worthy of the large-scale tour that Boyd himself undertook. In execution, however, Kin Ships could be considered somewhat one-dimensional, with most of the songs arranged into a sort of ambient Americana style. At points, the near-ambient feel of these songs works to their favour, in evoking the drawn-out and weary journey, however, after a while, many of the songs seem to blend into one another, and it is often the songs that break away from this pattern that stand out the most. But a commendable project, all the same, and in many ways, a very good primer for many lesser-known, but no less deserving artists – many from states not often singled out for their music.
Kin Ships is released on Friday 8th February via Joyful Noise Recordings