Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers just released an album (Loved Wild Lost) which is blowing dust off of shelves in terms of critical acclaim, but there was a time you could mention her name in a crowded tavern and all you would get were blank stares. It was a matter of exposure, which at the time was limited. Sometimes the music industry is a bitch no matter how talented you are.
That all changed when people wrapped their ears around the — what do they call those videos where you sit in a car and sing? Well, she and the Gramblers were driving and singing and the next thing you know the world is watching them drive and sing, and there you have it. Work your ass off and all it takes is one viral video. Welcome to the world of American Idol.
The thing is, Bluhm had an album out which gained solid reviews but no one seemed to care. I did, though, and wrote a very positive take on her first album, Driftwood. The review was received about as well as the album (it wasn’t) and my street cred (what little I had) disappeared until the band decided to take the scenic route drive that fateful day. Bluhm is now the rage, or will be as soon as everyone hears the new album. That old album, though … what would have happened but not for that on the road cover of Hall & Oates?
I will give you a do-over. Let us pretend she is not riding the crest of the wave and you have no idea who she is. This is what I wrote:
“It didn’t take me until “Jetplane” (Track 6 on her latest album [Driftwood] to get what Nicki Bluhm does on this album but it sure sealed the deal. What I heard in “Jetplane” is what I heard and loved about so much of the music during the late sixties and early seventies— a simple honesty, if you will. It is an honesty you seldom hear anymore, at least amongst the recording bands. I suppose it still lives in the bars and taverns— places where miking amps and drums is overkill, where PA systems are a couple of amp bottoms without grill cloth cover, where the sound depends more upon where you sit than what a mixing board can provide. “Jetplane” is a song which would have been a showstopper at outdoor fests back then, Bluhm’s voice having that timbre and phrasing which works well with the acoustic/electric blend of guitars. Throw in the backing vocals and the Illinois Speed Press-style grind on the break, the dual guitar lead tradeoffs (God, whatever happened to dual leads, anyway?), and I can almost feel the wind in my hair.
“Bluhm’s voice is an ear-pleasing hybrid of Linda Ronstadt, Chrissie Hynde and, when she throws back her head and lets go, Bonnie Bramlett, but it’s not her voice that makes the album, it is her phrasing (or lack thereof). I say this a lot (and write it even more), but a voice is only as good as the way it is used and Bluhm uses hers very well, indeed. The simple and forthright approach on the light, soft-rocking opening track (“Carousel”) gives way to the fifties production values of a love song (“Before You Loved Me”) which gives way to the country punk (complete with Johnny Cash shuffle and Tim Bluhm duet) “Stick With Me” which gives way to a solid cover of a Doug Sahm tune (“I Wanna Be Your Mama Again”) which gives way to….. That’s right. Bluhm is all over the place. The cool thing is that she handles each song with that honesty I mentioned. No fancy frills or vocal pyrotechnics for her. She doesn’t need them.
“She doesn’t need them because she feels the song as much as sings it. From light and poppy to floating and beautiful to soulful to raunchy to country punk, she doesn’t skip a beat. Of course, it doesn’t hurt having backup musicians borrowed from the likes of Railroad Earth, Dengue Fever, ALO and Mother Hips (good bands all). And the production talents of Dave Simon-Baker alongside the very talented Tim Bluhm. And the magic created by the songwriting talents of Ms. Bluhm and members of her entourage.
“Ah, the songs….. It is hard to pick favorites here, so let me point out the songs I love due to style. Those fifties values I mentioned regarding “Before You Loved Me” combines an ethereal slide guitar with background vocals straight out of the doo-wop era (think The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You”) until the chorus allows her to cut loose, Bonnie Bramlett-style. As mentioned earlier, “Jetplane” is pure flashback to the days of the musical back-to-the-earth movement, chock full of the approach of, say, Cat Mother and Illinois Speed Press and Country Funk, only with female vocals. “Kill You To Call” is something I would expect to hear out of earlier Bonnie Bramlett, the soaring soul and gospel influences a perfect match for Bluhm’s direct delivery (and those horns are straight out of Muscle Shoals). Good stuff!
“An aside: When I first received this CD, I got a little chuckle when I opened the jacket to discover a photo montage of Bluhm and her horde, late-sixties style. There she was, long dark hair looking very Grace Slick-like and surrounded by longhairs who could easily be straight out of that period— the guitars and amps too. Before I put it into the player, I already had San Francisco in my head and the CD did not disappoint. There is a freewheeling spirit to Driftwood I really enjoy, the style of song going wherever the music takes it. It is refreshing. Or maybe I just miss those days, music-wise. Regardless, this album does the trick. And I’m already anxious to see what she (they) comes up with next.”