Sometime in 1995 – album reviews – Dayna Kurtz’s ‘Footprints’ (“venturing into the faultlines between lovers which lurk in the most private places”)

30 Nov
Dayna Kurtz: 'Footprints'

Dayna Kurtz: ‘Footprints’

I’m not a stranger to heartbreak (either my own or that of others), but in all my experience of it, there are many things I haven’t done. I’ve never sat nursing a coffee in an all-night cafe as the dawn breaks, rearranging the cracked facets of my bitter smile. I’ve never composed the ultimate understanding kiss-off, writing the shapes and sentences to slide into a failed lover’s heart, to pat on the shoulder and slap upside the head with the same motion. I’ve never climbed the stairs of a Manhattan walk-up, trying to listen hard enough to trace the voices of memory infiltrating the walls and carrying memories of bitter love affairs, and of angry hearts temporarily exorcised at 3 a.m. But ‘Footprints’ – a collection of songs from Dayna Kurtz, whom I first saw breathing a blue glow of melody in front of a transfixed DreamHouse audience at the Water Rats – gives me an idea of what it might have felt like if I had.

Dayna explores the long deep pain of thwarted love with the same sort of delicious tension between voice and guitar as you get with Tuck & Patti or Jose Feliciano, but more raw, more direct, less decorated. Her voice is an aching, defiant, yearning thing, sharing breath with both Billie Holiday and Joni Mitchell. Her guitar is terse, bluesy, jazzy, but with a stubborn bluntness that refuses to flow smooth and to comfort; choosing instead to smack the hooks of wounded desire further into the heart, to bleed out the regret and anguish or to force the protective badges of scars and knowledge into being. Her songs clap and fold about you like a Coltrane solo bouncing jaggedly off the walls of a tiny club; or slip into you like short stories that sink to the depths of the heart, then rise like surfacing mines, meaning expanding in soft slow explosions.

Pick almost any song on here and you’re drawn into a story of bitter tangles; of embracing arms that end in helplessly clenched fists; of awkward, looming personal baggage that blocks the way into shared rooms. Perhaps the brittle R&B, funk and electricity that amplify the two full-band songs on ‘Footprints’ (‘The Road You’re On’, the title track) blunt the impact of Dayna’s writing. But catch her solo and you’re let in on something personal, painful, profound and beautifully defiant: “I threw my thoughts around, just for you to trip on.” She’s no fool: she’ll see through sentiment to the truth of the immediate (“once in a lifetime, this time – that’s what they sold me. / I don’t believe that, but it’s holy, holy,”) and she’s wise to vainglorious bullshit (“I got your picture at home: / you’re looking kinda cocky, with this wistful undertone, / like some cover has almost blown.”). Still, she seems ultimately to gravitate towards tension and friction in love.

In ‘Lay Me Down’ a relationship starts in a healing calm – “help me remember my liquid heart, and the open mouth of painful parting… / I’m moved, I confess, by a heart that seems calmer than mine.” Yet it swallows its own tail, hung up on the suspicions that both lovers have brought to the bed. “I hover above some something you said, / ’til I can’t feel you at all.”

In ‘Something/Nothing’ she attempts to immerse herself in a clasping at protection: “lost in the dark outside, I took your room to breathe, / and then I sealed all the cracks in me / then choked off my heart so cold and quick / and thought ‘it’s better this way’.” This, too, ends up in an indefinable and unexpected loss. “I lost my faith in something that I couldn’t name. / I thought you left with nothing… but I’m not the same.”

Dayna’s great songwriter’s gift – raising her above the usual horde of self-important dirty-linen washers – is the strength she brings to the table. A sense not of victimhood or self-righteousness, but of a strong woman of heart and mind, venturing into the faultlines between lovers which lurk in the most private places, and reporting back with full, proud honesty. “In my most helpless of hearts, I’ve been tearing up pictures of you,” she flares on Nowhere, made bloody-minded by another partner’s calculating shallowness and cowardice. “I gave my heart, an ocean; / showed you my soul to see. / And you just skimmed along the surface – but you’d swear you’d drowned in me… / When we’re good, we’re very good; / but when we’re bad, you’re nowhere.” On ‘This Side of Eve’ (a live duet with South African singer Tsidii Le Loka, whose shivering, passionate vocals coil round Dayna’s like smoke trails on a winter’s night) she’s set her face forward, to move on: “This place doesn’t know me, so there’s nothing to leave.”

Yet, appropriately, it’s the broken, free-time lick and gentle licking of old wounds on ‘Touchstone’ which I keep coming back to. A lonely, solo memory song (“I think of you, I think of you,”) surging and ebbing with the questions and longings that come too late (“Remember me? / I curve like a question mark. / And I’m lying home alone, / and I can almost hear you calling / like a saxophone…”). All the disappointments, yet couched in tenderness (“Remember me? / I came to you washed clean / and soft as a peach. / I said ‘let’s climb’, / but all you did was reach for me,”) and the frail wisps of old hopes, still held and treasured long after the hope has winked out of them – “I knew you’d be my touchstone, / I could see us getting old.”

Some old ghosts are now sitting with me. I think we’ll wait together, silently, until the sun comes up.

Dayna Kurtz: ‘Footprints’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette-only album
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand; this album is never likely to be reissued (since Dayna considers it to be juvenilia, or at the very least material recorded before she’d found her songwriting identity). There’s a live version of ‘Touchstone’ on Dayna’s ‘Otherwise Luscious Life‘ album.
Dayna Kurtz online:
Homepage Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music

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