The first full length solo release from Kari Arnett, When the Dust Settles, is her follow up to her first studio recording, 2015’s Midwestern Skyline EP. The Madison, Wisconsin area native has lived in the Minneapolis area for a number of years now and there’s no question her songwriting is fueled with a Middle America spirit – there’s no dross or added fat on these songs and the laser focus Arnett brings to her art sets her apart from many peers and contemporaries. The eleven song collection features a full band, but these multi-part performances never sacrifice their intimacy despite the involvement of various musicians making these songs work. The undisputed center of the performances, however, is naturally Arnett and her singer/songwriter chops are expansive enough to incorporate a variety of influences ranging from rock, country, and even a smattering of blues.
The patient distorted guitar introduction to “Dark Water” sets a moody tone for the album’s opening and mingling acoustic guitar around those electrified flourishes makes the song’s dramatics all the more memorable. Arnett’s vocals have a strong wailing quality, but she never goes overboard; instead, she exercises immense control over her voice and maximizes its power in service to the song rather than attempting to wow you with her vocal power. The second tune “Blood and Bones” shares some of the same dissonant electric guitar work flaring from the edges of the song, but it’s largely an acoustic dominated affair sharing the same pensive pace we heard with the first track. The introduction of pedal steel to the song, courtesy of Aaron Fabbrini, gives the song a ghostly voice underlining the deep feeling driving the cut.
Running nearly five minutes long, “This American Life” is one of the album’s more demonstrably ambitious tunes. The arrangement is orchestrated in such a way that there are a number of small peaks scattered throughout the song guaranteed to keep listeners on the edge of their seat. The tempo here is slightly faster than we’ve heard with the aforementioned songs, but never pushes too hard – instead, it’s a measured pace she takes with her songwriting and it’s certain to satisfy anyone willing to give it a chance. The brio and verve fueling the album’s title song elicits a passionate vocal from Arnett and the bluesy growl coloring the bulk of its electric guitar work gives it a dramatic cast a notch or two above all but the album’s finest songs.
The near shuffle of “Only a Woman” has some bluesy touches as well and it’s easy to hear that this tune is every bit as personal for Arnett as any of the other songs on When the Dust Settles. Arnett’s phrasing will consistently impress listeners and few of the songs on the album equal the evocative touch she brings to the vocal for “Only a Woman”. The finale “When You Were Mine” dispenses with electric guitar in favor of a strictly acoustic arrangement and the affecting turn from both the arrangement and lyrical content gives her voice ideal material. It’s a fine ending for the release, muted yet nuanced, and illustrates for a final time the superb sense of construction guiding the overall release. It’s a real winner for Kari Arnett and amply demonstrates her talents are enough to sustain a full album.