(5 / 5)
She’s here now as I write this review. This Canadian-born, New Zealand-based singer songwriter just blew the roof off a respected venue in London, and is getting a bit of a push over here, as her record label and management have faith she could break through in the UK. Me too.
If a broad church of country, roots, rockabilly, R&B and gospel is your thang, this is for you. The lady has made lots of friends and picked up a clutch of awards in her home of New Zealand and her birth land of Canada, for her four previous albums. This one has charted in NZ and done good business. She is certainly experienced; as a young girl in Canada touring with the Neilson Family band, and then her own successful solo career in NZ.
She looks great; fabulous beehive hair do and pretty vintage dresses. Her music videos play on the retro vibe. But what about the voice? The latest album “Don’t Be Afraid”? Well…She’s got it going on, for sure. This album is one of the very best to hit my desk this year. The voice is a bit of a weapon. It’s fabulous, versatile and Tami is a very decent songwriter. Great band, especially her guitarist Dave Khan, who should make music of his own too.
Tami’s last album, back in 2014, was chosen by the Guardian as one of their country albums of the year when it came out. This one is a more mixed bag of styles, and most of the 11 cuts are about the loss and hole left by the passing of Tami’s Dad, Ron Neilson, a celebrated Canadian musician and artist with a lengthy career.
But it never feels over sentimental, self indulgent or too sombre, because the material is strong even without knowing the background to the songs. It is a celebration and a musical tribute to the man, rather than a sad thing. And with the quality of the songs he part finished, the obvious influence he had on his musical kids, and the quality of Tami’s own songwriting, it was very much the right thing to do to let this music out, and share his memory with the world at large. One of the cuts from “Don’t Be Afraid” was placed on the smash hit US TV Series “Nashville.
The title track opens proceedings; a powerful vocal on the last song her late father Ron wrote, which he started and was finished by Tami and her brother Jay. Dave Khan’s swampy twang on guitar adds value. A track penned by Tami and brother Jay, “Holy Moses” picks up the pace with a cracking hook, on a more aggressive vocal delivery than the opener. It’s got T. Bone Burnett trademark vibes. Again, the ace guitar cuts through like a bitch and is the icing on a tasty cake. The guitarist’s impressive style nods to the likes of Link Wray, Dick Dale and The Cramps. I longed for a rip roaring guitar solo on this track, but it never came. One of the best bets for radio plays, and one of the standout cuts here. On “Holy Moses”, we know there’s a lot of the church about her vocal. That, “can I get a witness” testify thing going on. It gives her an edge.
Complete change of direction for the third cut, “Lonely” written by the three Neilson’s; Ron, Tami and Jay. A Peggy Lee vibe on the vocal, which is a beautiful vocal and a different approach from her to the previous cuts. It has a touch of Patsy’s 1962 smash “Crazy”, about it – or should I say, Willie Nelson’s “Crazy”, as he wrote that utter classic?
Delaney Davidson wrote the mid-tempo “So Far Away”, where Mr Khan opts for a distorted Rockabilly tone on guitar, a tad tango in structure, and a superbly controlled vocal from Tami. Brother and sister Neilson crafted the fitfh cut, “If Love Were Enough”, a laid back and sweet ballad, which leans towards Patsy, Emmylou and Loretta territory. A stripped back, intimate affair with loads of space and a vocal straight from the heart. Documenting how much their father is missed by everyone, but especially the grandchildren.
“Bury My Body” sounds like it would be a trad’ spiritual, but it was penned by Tami, a great vehicle forthe gospel side of her vocal talents. Fabulous fun on the rockabilly-meets-Latin cut “Loco Mama”, which would have been a snug fit for the late Ms. Winehouse. Written by Tami. Dave Khan again shines on guitar.
Another slow ballad with Tami’s “Heavy Heart”, the first track to feature pedal steel, from Red McKelvie. It treads Linda Ronstadt territory. Delaney and Tami’s “Only Tears” takes us back to Patsy flavours, and more pedal steel. Total change of direction with Tami’s “Laugh Laugh Laugh”, jolly hillbilly swing and yet another vocal style from the chameleon-like Tami. In the dictionary under “versatile” does it say: “See Tami Neilson”? Maybe it should.
The album closes with a sparse production value, where only Dave’s lovely restrained brush strokes on guitar accompany Tami’s vocal, on the T. and J. Neilson-penned “The First Man”. Delaney Davidson co-produced the record with Ben Edwards. The band are Dave Khan on guitar and strings, Joe McCallum on drums, Ben Woolley on bass and Delaney Davidson on guitars. They are a formidable outfit and deserve much credit for their contribution. All of the guys lend ensemble vocals to the mix too.
The switching of styles and genres here, may well mean Tami risked nailing a single identity and niche sound of her own. For me, I enjoyed hearing what she could do on the different genres. Is there a killer song here that will break her through on the commercial, mainstream side? You can answer that when you grab a copy and give it a spin.
Who is Tami Neilson, vocally? Well, I say this: A more hillbilly version of Amy Winehouse meets Imelda May, with some rockin’ Brenda Lee, a more snarling Tania Tucker, a smidge of Etta James and a fair dollop of early Lulu – all tipped off with a massive measure of Wanda Jackson. Throw in some gospel sisters such as Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson, and influences including ‘The Big O’, you have some sort of handle on what Ms Neilson is all about. But she’s no copycat. She is her own woman. The title of her last album from three years ago is also pretty appropriate: “Dynamite”. Hell, yeah, she sure is. Maybe what Patsy Cline could have sounded like in her later years, had she lived beyond 30?
I love Delaney’s production. But I’d like to see Tami work with a producer who can drill down into what really makes her tick as an artist, to help her to find her own sound, her own USP, and then make a record that focuses purely on that. And not being one thing one track and another thing another track, and so on………..Which is exactly what Mark Ronson did for Amy Winehouse, after her debut album “Frank”. He heard the potential and what her core sound should have been, where her heart really was as an artist. So he made it happen on her second album, which rocketed her to super-stardom. The likes of T.Bone Burnett and Jack White are writ large in my head as the right guys for the job with Ms. Neilson.
But I am not taking anything away from Tami and her team for this bloody excellent recording. It will be played here at my place for a long time to come, and I shall be spreading the gospel about what a find she is, to many. Gutted I missed her London show two nights ago, which I am told was quite a night. Hope she comes back soon.
Had Tami Neilson been around in the the 1950s with that voice and her enormous talent, I have little doubt that by now, she’d be “the legendary Tami Neilson”. Trust me, there’s still time.
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’