Fittingly enough, “Open Heart” has its central aesthetic attribute hiding in plain sight: a bass guitar more or less playing lead. Which makes sense when you are hip to Kate Davis’s unusual background: she came to the fore musically as a teenage bass prodigy. Jazz was her thing, but as it turned out she also played the internet pretty well—an impromptu, breezily recorded version of “All About That Bass,” with Davis singing and playing the upright bass, uploaded in 2014, now has more than 18 million views.
But the New York City-based Davis apparently had no interest in being painted into a corner of standards and retro recordings. As her personal tastes veered more and more towards indie rock bands such as Beach House and TV on the Radio, she eventually knew she had a whole other kind of music in her. “Open Heart” is a deft example of what can happen when someone with serious training and chops discovers the potential in the seemingly simplified landscape of a rock song. A surface listen may detect nothing obviously abnormal in “Open Heart,” but once you pay closer attention, you’ll realize, on the contrary, that there’s actually very little that is entirely normal here.
Davis singing over her lead-like bass playing is just the start of it. Then there’s what the bass is specifically doing, which entails a lot more fret work than a typical rock song necessitates. The lyrics, too, have a sort of surreal directness to them, as an imagined doctor’s visit, leading precipitously to a heart transplant, is conflated with a love gone astray, delivered in a deliciously matter-of-fact way (“Hold tight/Oh we’re taking your heart out now”). Musically, there is flawless movement from verse to pre-chorus to chorus; as “Open Heart” unfolds, Davis’s skill as a writer of melody and crafter of song becomes clearer and clearer. Notice in particular how the heartbeat pulse of the bass leads us effortlessly from the contemplative verse through to a chorus that opens in double time and concludes, over a wonderful chord progression, in half time—all without Davis seeming to break a sweat.
As for that heart-mimicking bass line, that turns out to be one of a number of adroit touches that feel satisfying and almost comic, in a musical way. Another is how the music extends and momentarily freezes—we might call it a sustain—at the end of the line “the injury you sustained” (2:02). There’s also how the recurring phrase “Deep breath” is articulated with more or less the opposite affect: more of a short gulp. I like too the removal of the omnipresent bass for the last iteration of the verse (starting at 2:22), which somehow creates a sensation of an angel passing through the hospital room, conferring the stark recognition that being alive involves accepting pain.
Davis’s career as an indie rocker was first launched with a high-profile credit she earned with Sharon Van Etten (they wrote “Seventeen” together); I’m anticipating a new level of acclaim when her debut album Trophy is released in November on Solitaire Recordings. “Open Heart” will be track two on the record; you can listen to three other songs in advance over on Bandcamp, and pre-order it there as well.
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And, even as Kate has moved past this, I’m offering up the Meghan Trainor cover because it’s really impressive. I love musicians who both know how to play their instruments and know how to perform—not always the same skill.