Friday, March 3, 2017

album review: 'felony blues' by jaime wyatt

So let's talk about the prison-industrial complex.

And believe it or not, that is a relevant topic to my content, specifically in a lot of the music I cover and not just because I've occasionally been told I remind people of John Oliver on Last Week Tonight - I'm extremely flattered, but he actually has production value and humor to back up his analysis. In this case, we're going to talk about how it relates to music and artists, because beyond the outlaw context, we should consider necessity in the modern age. Think about it: when you consider the percentage of the population that is incarcerated, especially for trumped-up drug offenses, and the fact that many companies will disqualify people based upon convictions during background checks, sometimes the DIY approach to the creation of art and music might be the only way to make a little money. Now that's not to say it's a method for everyone - music equipment is far from cheap, and not everyone has the means or talent to step into that arena, but as a possible path to avoid recidivism, it's not a bad one, especially if you can tell the story of your experience. 

And what's also notable is the historical precedent - many will make the obvious connection to hip-hop, but in one of the many, many parallels between the genres, these themes have been rooted in country music for decades, albeit a lot less so in the mainstream. Hell, if you read about how many times the greats in country were either in and out of jail because of their own wild lives, I'm always a little surprised that we don't see more of these themes continue, especially as the population percentage of incarceration continues to rise and with the growth and evolution of the truly horrible modern court and prison experience. So into the indie country scene comes Jaime Wyatt, who once had a few record deals that went nowhere before running afoul of the law and actually spending time in prison herself. And since she couldn't find conventional work after getting out, she turned to country music and put together a few projects along with some soundtrack work, with her first album From Outer Space coming 2015 and now this, aiming to tell more of her story. At seven tracks, it's a lean affair, but the critical acclaim it was receiving - to say nothing of themes that could often feel all the more relevant in modern America - meant that I had a vested interest in digging in. So on this project, did Jaime Wyatt deliver?

Well, here's the funny thing: in going back to look up From Outer Space, I also discovered that two songs from that project wound up here, so we're really only looking at five new songs - which is actually four new songs, because one is a cover. In other words, this almost feels like I'm doing an EP review - but at the same time it's a damn fantastic little project all the same, the sort of lean and effective album that might not dig into the overall concept as much as I was expecting, but was still plenty enjoyable and shows plenty of promise going forward.

And the funny thing is that it gets there in the way that the best country projects do: crisp, hook-driven, smartly written and delivered material that doesn't shy away from reality while still embracing a definitive style, in the case of Jaime Wyatt the California Bakersfield sound popularized by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. And I'll be blunt, I love these tones in country: rich in pedal steel melodies that linger over a weathered, textured mix that isn't afraid to pick up fiddle, hints of jaunty piano and organ, and a surprisingly well-defined bassline against the acoustic texture. And yet what surprised me is that for as old-school as this record is, it doesn't feel the need to drown itself in lo-fi distortion or embrace a lot of burnished indie country style - the prominent pedal steel and sharp edges of the electric guitar always have enough melodic interplay to keep the mix interesting and textures and add just enough supple support to the well-placed multi-tracking to keep the hooks moving. And my god, these hooks and melodies are ridiculously on point, from the bass-driven electric bite and pedal steel of 'Wishing Well' to the more traditional fiddle-driven rollick of 'Wasco', from the more supple acoustics and pedal steel that anchor the ballad 'Giving Back The Best Of Me', to the saloon piano accents that lead to the bass stomp chorus of 'Stone Hotel' and one of the best hooks I've heard thus far this year! And for the Merle cover 'Misery & Gin' that closes the record with the prominent pedal steel and piano holds the melody... hell, I daresay the cover anchors itself in slightly more ramshackle tones that are a better fit than Merle's cleaner, more elegant pianos and strings, to say nothing of better pacing. The only song I'm not wild about is 'Your Loving Saves Me', and even still it's a good track with a sharp guitar solo, just not having the same character in the production as the others. But on the flipside, when you consider the stunning piano, bass, pedal steel, and gentle touches of fiddle that holds together 'From Outer Space', one of the holdovers from that 2015 album... well, as I mentioned on Twitter, I've always had a soft spot for country songs that incorporate space imagery, and this is easily one of the best.

Of course, all of this is anchored by Jaime Wyatt herself - and yeah, she's a hell of a singer, capable of plaintive sultriness that does wonders for giving her huskier tones gravitas, with just enough multi-tracking to lend her breathier tones swell on the hooks of 'Wishing Well', 'Stone Motel', and 'From Outer Space'. Her vocal timbre and delivery reminds me a little of Lindi Ortega and Angel Olsen but deeper, a little more rich and full but still capable of reaching those higher notes with an ease that feels incredibly natural, and on songs like 'Stone Motel' she proves plenty capable of getting fiery in the best possible way. Which makes sense, because of the stories she tells on this record, that is the one where she, destitute and desperate, lands in prison. Yeah, this is where we have to talk about lyrics - and here's the thing, as much as I might want to hear a deeper concept record surrounding her experiences, in truth the jailtime only really lends directly to 'Stone Hotel' and 'Wasco', the latter a slightly more broad sketch a girl planning her reunion when her boyfriend gets out to embrace a life that'll probably lead right back to prison for the both of them - amusing, because the song was inspired by a story from one of her bunkmates. But in truth, most of these tracks play to pretty standard country tropes, from the drunken lonely hookups on 'Misery & Gin' to the frustrated chase and failures of 'Wishing Well' from the more straightforward but detailed love songs of 'Giving Back The Best Of Me', touched with bourbon and smoke, to the cosmic message of love across the stars on 'From Outer Space'. And yeah, I'd be stretching to say there's a firm theme here across the album, but there is a sense of practical agency that drives a lot of the writing here - not so much blunt but honest all the same, acknowledging the past and plowing forward, fiercely driven but on songs like 'Your Loving Saves Me' - which is more about the connection of friends than a lover or God - not needlessly sacrificing those ties. These are hardened stories, to be sure, but not needlessly so, and Wyatt plays exasperated frustration so well that the history gives her artistic persona real colour - even the broader stories, you can buy into them.

In short, I enjoyed the hell out of this album, and it easily stands a shot of being one of my favourite country records of the year. I do think it's a bit short on new original material, and I do think it could have afforded to hit a little harder on some of the darker themes, but I still think this is a damn great project all the same, and one that certainly solidifies Jaime Wyatt in indie country. For me, a very strong 8/10 and for sure a recommendation, especially if you want to hear a talent I can imagine will attract a lot more attention in the next few years if she keeps this up. There might be darkness in her past, but if she can translate it into songs that are this great, I definitely want to hear more.

No comments:

Post a Comment