THROUGH THE LENS: Meet the Women Behind Five Strong Albums Coming This Month
Allison Russell - Mountain Stage - Photo by Amos Perrine
While we are not yet midway through this year, there has already been some marvelous music released so far. This week Through the Lens looks at five releases still to come before we hit the halfway point that’ll tickle your fancy if you give them some spins. Two are “tribute” albums, of sorts, that pay homage to two legends; two address the cultural and social crossroads where we find ourselves today; and one simply burns with desire. Here are my short takes.
Mandy Barnett – Every Star Above (May 7)
If there was any doubt in anyone’s mind that Barnett is one of today’s best vocalists, that doubt is laid to rest with this album, her eighth. Known as a classic country singer, here — with a 60-piece orchestra and well-timed, evocative saxophone solos — she undertakes the Great American Songbook in the tradition of the great ballad vocalists of the 1950s and succeeds where many better known vocalists have faltered.
While much has been made of the song selection being the same as Billie Holiday’s last album, Lady in Satin, Barnett is more inspired by that album and Holiday’s innate ability to put the totality of her being in every song than attempting to duplicate it or, heaven forbid, imitate Holiday. When Barnett sings these 10 standards it is unmistakable that she not only caresses their lyrics, she also inhabits them, she stretches them out to a great emotional effect. If, like many music lovers these days, you want to explore the riches of this musical heritage, get this album. Then work yourself backwards.
Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising (May 7)
The first thing that strikes you about Sharp is how much her songs remind you of those by Jimmy Webb, a deceptive simplicity that harbors a grander, emotional scope. And what sets her apart is a perceptive intimacy that finds the small moments in a relationship to be as significant as the grand gestures. A great example is in the reveal in “Whatever We Are,” where she sings, “Changing the station or singing along / In the back of my mind or the back of your car / I love you whatever we are.”
Sharp can also set you up. In “Nice Girl” over a happy-go-lucky beat, she intones: “The quiet storm behind that thousand yard stare / Like you want someone to save you, like your running days are done … hey, you’re gonna make some nice girl miserable some day.” In “Backburner” she gets messy: “It’s a hell of a way to say turn the flame up higher / When I put you on the backburner / You set the place on fire … It’s a hell of a way to pay for my desire.” It’s the album’s first single, and if you are as taken with it as I am, you’ll likely find a lot of yourself in her songs.
Allison Russell – Outside Child (May 21)
For her first solo album, Russell draws upon a myriad of both personal experiences and musical influences to create a dreamscape that answers the proverbial question, “Why are we here?” No, not literally, but most certainly metaphorically. Russell has been forthright in the path that led to not just the idea of stepping out of the relative “comfort” zones of Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters but also to the writing and recording of these extremely autobiographical sketches of a life that could have gone a hundred different, tragic ways.
In a note Russell said that the songs are “like sucking the poison from a snake bite,” and likens hope, love, empathy, and forgiveness to superpowers, powers that may not cure but certainly can heal, enabling each of us to be the hero of our own histories. We are here to tell the stories of past atrocities, personal and collective, cancers on our soul, so that they may never be repeated again. But first, they must be accepted as such.
Lula Wiles – Shame and Sedition (May 21)
While Bob Dylan in 1964 prophesized that “the loser now will be later to win,” it’s been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride for losers and winners to the point in time we find ourselves today. The current pandemic has widened the economic gulf between the two, but in so doing has also made more glaring its underlying nature: capitalism and colonialism. This trio’s third album represents a new generation’s reckoning with America’s history of racism, misogyny, poverty, and industrialism.
But this is not a preachy or unnecessarily heavy album. For example, “Call Me Up” is as tender a love song you will likely hear all year. To accomplish all this while simultaneously creating a denser sound that’s both dreamy and deeply fathomable is a testament to their chosen profession as roots musicians.
Shannon McNally – The Waylon Sessions (May 28)
Little did I suspect when I saw McNally, with her white Elvis guitar, in the studio where Waylon Jennings recorded that she’d be recording songs that he made famous in that same studio a few years later. At first blush, finding a feminine perspective inside songs so closely identified with the high-testosterone outlaw movement would seem like a fool’s errand. But McNally, a divorced Nashville mom in her 40s, is not some dilettante seeking street cred. In a note she said that as a longtime fan she viewed Jennings’ music as “defiantly existential yet accessible common man’s music [that] boogies.”
In this project McNally unearths a softer vulnerability beneath the masculine exterior. Perfect example is “Black Rose,” by Billy Joe Shaver, with lyrics that are pure Shaver: “The devil made me do it the first time, the second time I did it on my own.” The grooving, lazy two-step feel of the original is magnified here. Check out the article in Relix magazine that premiered the song.
Now, the photos. Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slide show.