Kate Jacobs — Hoboken, New Jersey’s indie-label answer to the folk/country compromise popularized by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin — has a clear, plucky soprano, a firm melodic sense and an excellent instrumental compatriot in guitarist Dave Schramm.
Lyrics are the Virginia native’s strong suit. A sentimental romantic with a sensitive touch, she writes down-to-earth small tales — almost all of her songs contain dialogue — that consider relationships as comfortably and credibly as they contemplate great truths and search for deep meanings. On The Calm Comes After (self-released one year and expanded, resequenced, repackaged and reissued the next), Jacobs shifts topical gears without ever lurching. She mulls over “a cosmic kind of ache” in “Destiny’s Darling” and announces herself “Easy to Steal” — “even though I kind of wish he’d lock me up inside his heart.” She helps expel existential dolor in “Sadness Rises” and pays a sweet visit to an old friend in the magical “Talk to Me.” She raves about a friend from Kansas in “Iris Has Faith” and has the nerve to begin “Definitely Not Romance” by asking “What is the meaning of life, anyway?” The courageous family tragedy of “Now They’re Here” is the only compelling addition to the album’s Bar/None edition; otherwise, the improvements are just window dressing.
Although Jacobs recorded (What About Regret) with the same trio as her first album, the results are quite different. Exchanging sprightly lightheartedness for a mild melancholy and warm country stylings for music of wider ambition, Jacobs raises her sights to a higher, more literary plane. In this realm, characters are having harder times living with their blues (“My Old Haunts,” “Be Brave”). They face fears (“Oh Vagabond”), disappointments (“A Sister”) and loneliness (“Made My Bed”)-and don’t emerge unscathed. The songs’ powerful poignancy and rustic reality make Jacobs resemble Victoria Williams at times, as do her impressively improved story-telling skills. The pot-farming saga of “3 Years in Nebraska” is a charmer; the sparsely furnished “No Question,” a story worthy of Colette (but apparently based on the creator of The Story of O), concerns a woman who daily writes a chapter of a compelling novel to keep her married lover from leaving her and becomes a famous author in the process. A moderately demanding emotional experience, (What About Regret) rewards careful listening with details and empathy, like a series of personal letters from close friends.
Released to coincide with the publication of Jacobs’ children’s book, A Sister’s Wish, the 1996 EP joins the memorable Regret song of the title (on which the book is based) with four characteristically fine new tunes. The sweet “Shallow” has a sharp Schramm solo; the guitarist co-wrote and duets quietly with Jacobs on “The Heart of the Matter.” “You Sleep, I’ll Drive” lifts the tempo while attempting to settle some emotional disharmony, and ends A Sister with the reassurance that music is a potent palliative for the bumps in life’s road.