Tami Neilson – Sassafrass! (Outside)
It’s not clear what the titular North American tree has to do with any of the songs on the new Tami Neilson album, unless she’s a big fan of traditional root beer or Indigenous medicine. More than likely, it’s a fun way of saying, “Sassy!” Which Ms. Neilson most definitely is.
Neilson is a Canadian expat living in New Zealand, where she’s become a country music star with her decidedly retro vibe à la Patsy Cline or Wanda Jackson, but with the vocal pipes of a gospel singer—one track here, “Miss Jones,” pays direct tribute to the recently departed R&B singer Sharon Jones. She must be truly seen to be believed (she’s playing this year’s Mariposa Festival, on the July 6 weekend, along with Nick Lowe, Bahamas and Buffy Sainte-Marie). But her records aren’t too shabby either.
Neilson’s last record, Don’t Be Afraid, was her most personal, and her most bluesy. Here, she gets topical: “Kitty Cat” and particularly “Smoking Gun” appear to be written after the #MeToo movement broke. Further feminism appears in a song with the chorus, “This whole world turns on a woman’s pain.”
Musically, Sassafrass is also her most diverse: there are plenty of almost campy rockabilly rave-ups, several nods to soul music, and dramatic ballads guaranteed to be heartbreakers, notably “Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6,” a song that should be loaned out to k.d. lang—although she’d have her work cut out for her after Neilson’s version. (June 8)
Stream: “Diamond Ring,” “A Woman’s Pain,” “Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6”