Take it easy

Kim Richey entertains her inner Californian

What to make of Kim Richey's shift from the spit-shined sophistication of 1999's Glimmer to the quirky nonchalance of her latest CD, Rise?

The more obvious storyline would have the affable Ohio native breaking out of the slick stylistic confines imposed by a profit-hungry major label (in this case, Mercury) determined to make her over into something she could never be. After 1995's Kim Richey failed to crack Nashville through the front door, Glimmer sounded for all like a heavy-handed bid for adult-contemporary respectability — part Trisha Yearwood (who scored a hit with the Richey-penned "Believe Me Baby (I Lied)"), part Shawn Colvin, and with silky-smooth singing to match either note for note.

But Richey refuses to play the blame game when it comes to the Rise's 1999 predecessor — either at the expense of Mercury or Glimmer's pop-friendly producer, Hugh Padgham. Under a new label, Lost Highway, she's essentially working with the same bunch that signed her to Mercury before it was absorbed by the Universal/Seagram's merger. And Padgham was her choice — she loved his work on XTC's 1982 album, English Settlement.

"I'm not going to make any apologies for Glimmer — there are some of my favorite songs ever on that record," says Richey. "Nobody ever made me do anything."

But you could argue that the across- the-board strength of Richey's writing on Glimmer could've been better served a little more breathing room in the studio. On Rise, that sort of creative space is no longer at a premium. Producer Bill Bottrell — the man behind Sheryl Crow's Tuesday Night Music Club and Shelby Lynne's I Am Shelby — is a guru of give-and-take.

"It was all pretty loose — unless Bill had some secret master plan," Richey says. "I didn't really know what to expect. It was more like making demos."

Richey recorded Rise at Bottrell's warehouse studio in Northern California's Mendocino County, forgoing her former Nashville zip code and her current hometown of Austin, Texas, for a head-clearing dose of the Pacific salt air. To help her settle in, she brought along her collaborator pals Chuck Prophet and Pete Droge (who's in town working on an album with Matthew Sweet and Shawn Mullins, and will sit in with Richey and her band at the Variety Playhouse).

In the end, most of the songwriting help came from Bottrell and his handpicked rhythm section of Brian MacLeod on drums and Birdie on bass. As both player and producer, Bottrell puts the lift in Rise's subdued content, from his unadorned, eardrum-tweaking treatments of Richey's vocals on "Girl in a Car" and "Fading," to his cushiony Farfisa organ runs on "Me and You," to his unconventional guitar and keyboard work throughout the album.

Whether the songs benefited from the relaxed studio atmosphere is debatable. At times Rise recalls the earthy, straightforward finesse of Richey's 1997 release, Bitter Sweet, and the lyrics are among her most piercingly vivid ("You sit there with your visions, your tonic and your gin/Tattoo scenes of paradise all over my skin"). But the music often feels unfocused at best, unfinished at worst. With the exception of "Me and You" and "The Circus Song (Can't Let Go)," the pristine pop hooks so abundant on previous releases are nowhere to be found here. And the mellow, reflective mood, low-key arrangements and gentle pace can be taxing on the patience.

But all that seems like a relatively small price to pay for an album so thick with atmosphere and infused with immediacy.

"We'd just go in there, and nobody knew what we were going to do that day," says Richey. "Everything was pretty much on the fly."