No matter what you were expecting, Welcome to Hard Times defies expectations -- it betters them. This full-length debut by the California singer/songwriter is nothing short of stunning and takes the post-folk genre to a whole new level. Christian Kiefer's songs are literate, even erudite in their origins, as they are the results of a careful study of the history of western America. The themes of the West (musical and cultural) serve as guideposts from which Kiefer strays on his own path, debunking a few clichés along the way. Banjo and acoustic guitar provide the main instrumentation. Country and folk are plucked at their roots and transplanted into the 21st century. Instrumental soundscapes glue the pieces together to form a self-contained journey, each song becoming one short story in a collection. "Giants" deals with the macho first-person narration gracefully, but the best moments arise when Kiefer's vocals take center stage. In "Firing the Town," "Roll the Bones," and mostly "How to Kill an Indian" and "Erendira," Kiefer sings in a understated voice, but it does not result in the amateurish delivery so common in alternative rock and folk. The fragility and emotion are genuine, the intonation precise yet natural, giving his singing the power to rip through your chest like Phil Ochs or Tori Amos in her early days -- yes, that would be heresy putting these two names side by side, but wait until you hear him sing "How to Kill an Indian" backed only by Michael Madden's piano. Damn, it's beautiful. The best part is that Welcome to Hard Times becomes more infectious with every listen. Albums like this don't come often -- and it's only his debut!
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AllMusic Review by François Couture