Alt-country hurting takes on epic proportions
There’s an underlying element of pain and weariness audible in Amy Black’s voice on her second release, This Is Home. Hers is a voice which might take some time to warm up to – with its slightly nasal tone and fearlessly forlorn qualities – but any investment will pay back huge dividends. Black tackles everyday matters of the heart, the importance of home and the oftcrushing responsibilities of life we all face – expressing impressive levels of emotion through the warmth and strength of her voice. This may not go down as the Party Album of the Year, but it will register deeply in your psyche, underlining the value of life on earth and the price we pay for the privilege.
Black is Boston-based but her southern roots come to the fore on this sophomore effort (she was born in Missouri and lived in Alabama as a child) as elements of folk and country blend with rock and gospel to forge a sound and a feel inextricably bound to her
lyrics and delivery. In fact, her simpatico session band (Will Kimbrough, Oliver Wood, Todd Lombardo – guitars; Josh Grange – pedal/lap steel, organ; Ian Fitchuk – drums, piano, B3; Lex Price – bass) seem as extensions of the singer herself, joined at her hip and integral to each original composition. You begin to wonder if one can exist without the other.
Despite the feel-good music accompanying Nobody Knows You, the album gets off to a mournful start given Black’s foreboding tone – this atop gushing B3, animated guitar and playful bass. Continued through the use of pedal steel and weeping guitar lines, Black sounds anything but happy at the prospect of being home in I’m Home while that old, haunting hurt continues as the band drones on through the bluesy Old Hurt. Out of the blue, a ray of sunshine cracks through the din with the extreme love of place exhibited in Alabama – a heartfelt love song if ever there was one, Kimbrough’s backing vocals adding to the impact.
Her frustrations at not being able to help her ailing mother benefit from the child-like perspective in the powerful, countrified Make Me An Angel while the crumbling relationship of These Walls Are Falling Down may well be beyond hope, despite the buoyant sounds of lush piano, tight guitar and heart-swelling B3. The funky wash of B3 and banjo can’t fix the self-sacrifice depicted in Layin’ It Down yet Black and Co. lay down a fat, friendly groove that comes close. Her heart ripped apart by the loss of her beloved father’s mental health, Hello digs deep into the gut-wrenching sadness of Alzheimer’s. Stronger proves a rare rocker with Black its able front-woman, chronicling the pain of separation – again, from the perspective of a child’s, its chorus of Why’d you have to do it? cutting to the bone. Contrast this with the lively Cat’s In the Kitchen, erupting like a kitchen party, full of fun and optimism. Another highlight – “We Had A Life” – chronicles the interminable heartbreak of a split, Black’s hardship worn on her sleeve like a way of life. Two telling covers grace this collection – John Prine’s Speed at the Sound of Loneliness and touring buddy Rodney Crowell’s Still Learning How To Fly. Black’s thoughtful reading of Loneliness doesn’t add much to the original yet its lyric is somehow more convincing from the perspective of a woman. Her spirited take on Crowell’s Fly proves another highlight, augmented by pedal steel, B3 and a bank of electric and acoustic guitars. All covers should fit so perfectly. A hidden track, Gospel Ship, recalls her southern church beginnings, this banjo and guitar-led singalong serving as an energetic, bluegrass coda to the spiritual cleansing which has preceded it.
All-in-all, Amy Black wears pain so convincingly as to believe her life has been one trial after another. As a result, her strongest suit is the more inflammable material, her vocals perfectly suited to delivering on the melancholic – those dark and dreary, world-weary rites of passage which seem inescapable. At the same time, Black is far from defeated – more grist for the mill – exhibiting an undeniable strength and complete conviction, suggesting she’ll always come out on top. A stunning effort. www.amyblack.com
* Featured in Maverick Magazine, July/August 2014 Edition.