Jess Klein is a twenty-six-year-old singer from Boston, and what’s most beguiling about her Draw Them Near (Rykodisc/Slow River, 2000) is that it isn’t great, it isn’t novel, but it can still get right under your skin. It goes to Klein’s voice: too thin, too reedy, too small.
You can’t make the kind of case for Klein you could make for Macy Gray–seemingly coming out of nowhere last year, Gray made most every other singer on the radio sound well-trained, well-behaved, or, with the hordes of vocalists following Lauryn Hill and the Fugees’ insensate melisma, stupid, like human wah-wah pedals. It was the growl that got you, that translated into a half-conscious notion that Gray couldn’t or wouldn’t altogether speak what she knew out loud, that at least half of every song was going to stay in her mouth (“I could clear my throat,” she’s reputed to have said, “and lose my whole career”). She sounded much older than her twenty-nine years; her sound was all authority.
Even singing off a big, chording guitar, as on the assembly-line rocker “Open Me,” Klein sounds ordinary. The bigger the arrangement, in fact, the more like an impostor she seems, and it’s as an impostor that she’s a real pop singer. Putting pictures to her voice, you can see her in the background of sitcoms, filling out a secretarial pool in a crime novel, sitting in the front row at a Tracy Chapman concert with a glow in her eyes that almost matches the spotlight on the star. You hear frustration, anonymity, someone you have to get to know before you realize how easy it is to look at her face. With all that, she seems to crawl into her own songs, not sell them. You aren’t offered the perfectly ordered terrificness of Lucinda Williams, whose plain-folks routine has proven as salable as that of George W. Bush; the shtick of Snoop Dogg, who can be magical for a phrase but can’t carry an entire song, let alone an album; the dizzying costume changes of Joan Osborne’s Righteous Love, her finally released follow-up to 1995’s Relish. What you find in Klein is much closer to the fan’s voice Eminem plays with in “Stan,” teasing out the way the devotee, ignored by his idol, never gives up hope.
When Klein gets to the seduction number “I Sure Would,” it’s the classic scene of the mousy librarian taking off her glasses and undoing her bun–think of Dorothy Malone’s bookstore clerk putting the CLOSED sign on the door in The Big Sleep (1946). But the cliché doesn’t hold. Klein’s performance here is so convincing–the sex up against the wall, on the floor, better than you can get in the movies–that the other tunes on the album, tunes of giving up, being dumped, of plain and unrelieved self-doubt, pull against it. You begin to doubt the realism of the slow, lascivious gestures that create the rhythm in “I Sure Would”; you begin to wonder if the woman in the song isn’t just making it all up, or glossing something she read in a magazine.
Klein doesn’t hit notes; she brings them down to her level. She has no range. When she goes low she loses emotional definition, and when she goes high her voice breaks. When it does break, though, you hear how hard people try to say what they mean, and how scared they are that they might be understood.
The band on Draw Them Near, a straight singer-songwriter’s rock ‘n’ roll band–is expert, giving Klein room to work. On her first recordings, made over five years ago–tunes you can hear on her Web site–she’s alone with her acoustic guitar, nowhere near a singer, punching words to disguise the fact that she can’t translate them into music. But even then, on a number called “Common Sense” there’s a hint of the melodies and lifts that make most of Klein’s new songs as hard to get out of your head as they are, on one listening or less, easy to dismiss. The fall of “all right” in “I’ll Be Alright,” the slow climb up to the dead-of-night drama that opens “Ireland,” and the flat, deadpan way she doesn’t bother with a rhyming dictionary for “You think I don’t understand, but I understand”–they’re hard to read, like someone trying to catch your attention in a crowd. She fails, you both go home, and then you wonder if that well-dressed woman was looking at you, and if she was, why?
Interview, October 2000