Dayna Kurtz is a welcome addition to the New Orleans music scene. She’s a singer/songwriter with the forthrightness of a farm girl and the wiles of a New York cabaret veteran, a superb vocalist and a deft painter of emotions with simple, effective strokes. When she moved to New Orleans in 2012 she’d already built an impressive resume in the folk/roots/Americana tradition with a series of critically acclaimed albums and a powerful performance at the Lagniappe stage at Jazz Fest. Her life has taken some eventful turns since that move. The breakup of her marriage and the death of her father shadow the themes of Rise and Fall.
Kurtz can write about relationships in an extremely personal yet almost theatrically formal manner. In “A Few Confessions,” she writes about imagining herself with other men and asks her partner “Do you mind?” She can also write about longing for a lover with the ache of starvation. “I write the saddest lullabies,” she admits in “Far Away Again.” She expresses absolute devotion in “Eat It Up” and “Yes, You Win,” yet leaves room for a fling in “You’re Not What I Want (But You’re All That I Need).” The absolute classic love song on this set is the album opener, “It’s How You Hold Me,” a giddy catalog of a lover’s gestures delivered with a powerful vocal performance. Kurtz has total mastery of the dynamics of ballad singing. She brings the kind of substance to her vocals characteristic of a great gospel singer. And yet the overall feel of the album is hushed and sepulchral, its melodies fleeting through the songs like unseen breezes through tall trees.
Kurtz can go deep. “There are three songs on this record that are suitable for funerals,” she noted during her record release party at the All Ways Lounge. “It’s an untapped market, I think.”
The most formidable of that trio is “The Hole,” a truly spooky lament sung with only violin accompaniment. Kurtz sounds almost in a trance as she observes herself from above preparing a grave in three verses that lash together memories of her father with the physical sensation of digging a hole while wearing her dad’s boots. She appends the Bobby Charles spiritual “You’ll Always Live Inside of Me” as the album’s goose bump inducing finale.