Old-time warmth, 21st-century sass. It’s a potent recipe for that few artists successfully pull off — and Miss Tess is one of them. The vintage Nashville-based singer lays down world-weary vocals and scorching guitar solos on her 1930s Weymann archtop, all while maintaining a cool distance that makes it easy to imagine Miss Tess and her band crooning these songs at the sock hop. In this sense, The Moon Is an Ashtray is like a mini-spaceship through time and dimensions.
However, this would be a sock hop from an alternate universe, one where couples dancing stayed as integral to rock and roll as it was from its birth. The Moon Is an Ashtray was recorded at the Bombshelter in Nashville and produced by none other than Andrija Tokic (alongside Miss Tess herself and her longtime musical partner Thomas Bryan Eaton.) Tokic is known for helping break the Alabama Shakes and producing albums with vintage warmth, and that’s apparent in spades here.
Whether it’s the Spanish-style guitars on “The Truth Is” or Miss Tess’s extended solo in “Sugarbabe,” Miss Tess and her band clearly have a deep musical knowledge. “True Flood,” which features a duet with Lake Street Drive’s Rachael Price, draws on a country soul groove but is truly borne along by the song’s nod-and-wink attitude. Overall, the songs on this album feel classic, yet have a 21st-century-sized chip on their shoulders — especially on the album’s title track, which cautions listeners against the dangers of romanticizing people and places from afar.
That doesn’t stop the narrator of “I Wanna Be a Cowboy,” a raucous number with honky-tonkin’ jangling pianos and humorous reflections on the many fears holding the narrator back from their ultimate dream. While that song is fun, the band brings the mood down with “If You Don’t Know How to Love Me,” a tender, beautiful breakup ballad. “One Little Kiss,” meanwhile, summons a murky, submerged Buddy Holly sensibility.
Atmosphere is the key word for this album: The Moon Is an Ashtray will make you feel classy, sure, and have you thinking that maybe you know better than the poor souls in these songs — but Miss Tess will be sure to remind you of your own human failings. That’s a constant throughout the multiverse.