As the strings penetrate our speakers with a warm melody that only gets heavier as we move deeper into the song, it quickly becomes clear in the opening cut of Kari Holmes’ When I See You Smile — “Hurts Bad” — that the acclaimed singer/songwriter is intent on setting the tone hard right off the bat in her official debut full-length album. The tempo only gets hotter as “Deserves to Be Loved” rolls into place, as does the fight in Holmes’ frequently bittersweet harmonies. She’s gunning for gold in songs like these and the titular track in When I See You Smile, and unlike the limited frame her mundane mainstream counterparts are working through, hers is a style of country music singing that blends the best of the old school with the new.
“Making Heaven a Home” hits hard like a ton of bricks thanks to its personal lyrical content, and were it not for the upbeat sway of “Encore” immediately following it, I fear the midsection of When I See You Smile would feel more melancholic than it should. “Devil Devil” is the most carefree of all twelve songs here, but it doesn’t overshadow the heavy thrust of “Came Here to Dance Alone” at all — the opposite, quite frankly. In tracks like “Came Here to Dance Alone” and the fiery “Even If You Don’t” (my favorite of the LP), Holmes is presenting differently than she does in “Hurts Bad” or the namesake song, showing that she isn’t just versatile as a player — she’s someone with immense feeling as a human being.
“Guess Who” flirts with adult contemporary pop themes but never slips away from its country aesthetic the way “Just to Hear Your Name” does, but I don’t consider either to be out of place next to the other material in When I See You Smile. Part of the reason why I think that Kari Holmes seems like an artist worth spying on in the New Year is her flexibility when it comes to the boundaries most country players aren’t willing to cross. She has the heart of a folk-pop singer/songwriter buried somewhere beneath the pastoral twang of “One Step Beyond,” and it’s most evident when she hits her stride in the choruses of “Just to Hear Your Name” and “Guess Who.”
When I See You Smile rounds up with “It Ain’t Real If It Ain’t You,” a rollicking piano-driven ballad that punches another pop card before leaving us with a distinctive country croon as the record fades to black, and I think it was the right song to finish this tracklist. There’s a lot of miles between “Hurts Bad” and “It Ain’t Real If It Ain’t You,” but the journey Kari Holmes takes us on in her first album is one that I would join any day of the week as a country music enthusiast and as a professional critic. She’s still got a lot of room to grow with her fan base, but anyone who says she isn’t on the right path hasn’t heard this LP.