by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hen Karli Fairbanks plays a waltz, people weep. "Bitter Blue" -- the song that lends its name to her forthcoming album -- has set strangers to crying more than once. She's surprised by this, but also pleased. "I've made three people I don't know cry," she says, smiling. "They respond to it really well."

The song is a churning, fuzzy-guitared metaphor for leaving comfort and ease for the open, uncertain waters of personal growth:

Away from the mountains / I'll flow like the river / out to the sea. Taking these traps and / the vices I live by / out to the sea. / ...under the dark canopy / I can see / the dull lights, they flicker and wander / out in the bitter blue sea.

It's tortured and lonely and gorgeous, the light delay on her strong, hushed voice melting into the guitar's considerable reverb. There's a tinge of hope in the words, but it's a dim, far-off thing obscured by alienation. Painted as Fairbanks does, straying into the sea takes willpower. Staying takes faith. It's a subtle admission of belief that interlaces much of the album.

Fairbanks shies from the "Christian artist" label, though it doesn't surprise her when people notice it in her imagery. "If you believe deeply, it will show through in everything you do," she says, whether or not you invoke holy names.

Despite the persistent sadness of In a Bitter Blue, Fairbanks doesn't believe she's an ascetic merely waiting out this life for the next. "I have the perspective that, though there are really great things to do -- I have a great life -- I just have the hope that there's something better," she says. "You see the suffering in the world and you have to."

The hope isn't always bright and up front. Even when it's distant and dull and flickering, though, Fairbanks' hopefulness persists.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & ith the exception of her brother Zac Fairbanks playing guitar and drums on "Whiskey Flowers," Caroline Fowler lending haunting, childlike backing vocals to "Tie Me Up," and Scott Ellis' steel guitar adorning three tracks, In a Bitter Blue is Fairbanks' alone. With songs dating to mid-2006, Fairbanks has been patiently, painstakingly writing, composing and recording. Though it certainly would have been easier to employ any number of friends from the Empyrean cabal to help the process along, schedule conflicts and spare funds pushed her to do most of the work herself (enlisting the help of Brian Bogue to record the title track). In hindsight, she's glad she did so much herself. "The songwriting process is lonely. You do everything by yourself," she says. "So to record an album of songs you've written alone is more meaningful."

For the record release, though, she'll be among friends, fronting a band of six (Cole, Zac Fairbanks and Fowler along with Joel Smith, Nick Tibbitts and Will Haworthe). Where most of her live performances won't have the depth of instrumentation that In a Bitter Blue has, the Empyrean date will lack only the steel guitar that wends a dulcet plaint through three of the album's tracks.

Fairbanks affects emotions powerfully when she's alone with an acoustic guitar in a small room of strangers. It isn't clear if the same will be true when she's backed by glockenspiel and piano and banjo and accordion. The experience of hearing her elegant wail lift above Smith's ambling banjo and Tibbitts' steady drum rhythms during a practice session last week, though, was damn near religious.

Karli Fairbanks with Breanna Paletta at Empyrean on Saturday, Oct 20, at 8 pm. Free. Call 838-9819.

Spokane Folklore Society's Valentine's Dance @ East Spokane Grange

Sat., Feb. 11, 7-10 p.m.
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