Amy Black- The Muscle Shoals Sessions review

Amy Black The Muscle Shoals Sessions Reuben Records

2377162Amy Black first came to my attention with the release of her second album, One Time. It was a remarkable, unheralded collection of largely original music. Back then I wrote that, in her songs “connections to the past—through instrumentation, mood, and especially straightforward emotional honesty—are evident. But this is no relic of a glorified, sepia-toned time when everything was better than it is today.” [Some days, I can’t write a cognizant thought: apparently, that wasn’t one of those days!]

I went back an explored an earlier album recorded with the Red Clay Rascals, and was again thoroughly enchanted by Black. On that recording, she explored the music of Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and John Prine, among others, and revealed herself to be a very capable interpreter of familiar music. The freshness of Black’s voice elevated her into that category that I hold dear, singers to whom who I knew I would always return.

Amy Black became someone I could count on to provide balanced and lively collections of contemporary Americana, a blend of her considerable influences: folk, country, blues, troubadours of all variety, and—way deep down—hints of southern-flavoured soul. I wrote that Black reminded me of Kate Campbell and that she had a singing voice “as natural and welcome as lemonade on a sweltering summer’s day, with an amiable tartness lingering within its sweetness.”

Her next album This Is Home provided additional evidence of her developing style, her increasing originality even as she continued to expand on the music that formed her musical core. I started to hear shades of Melissa Etheridge in her lower register, a burgeoning soulfulness that had previously only been apparent in passing moments.

Southern-raised and Boston-based, Black has Muscle Shoals on her mind and in her soul, and I don’t mean that figuratively; on This Is Home, she tells a story of her Muscle Shoals-born grandfather’s influence.  “Hello” addressed family connections lost to time, “Stronger” is a glorious country song where accusation and recrimination is replaced by growth and challenge, while that song for her grandfather, “Alabama,” sums up her history with her homeland.

With Lex Price producing, a change in direction was noticeable. Will Kimbrough came on board, providing guitar rhythm and licks of the highest quality. A steamy, languid quality was afforded prominence in Black’s music. This was no affectation, but a natural quality permeating from her very character, and which she wisely chose to highlight throughout This Is Home.

On these songs, it was all about emotion, evoking a sense of place and time, and making a connection through Black to the listener’s emotionally connected times and places. Much like Lucinda Williams, Black has the maturity of experience colouring her writing, her singing—she may not have lived every event she sings about, but she has experienced the emotions that brings them to fruition. Nothing is fake when it comes to Amy Black. An e.p. recorded in Muscle Shoals followed last year, giving a taste of what was to come.

Two years ago then, gone was the unexpected surprise of discovering a previously unheard talent. In its place became certainty that Black was remarkable, one that had everything required to become a mainstay within the Americana genre. For whatever reason, despite glowing reviews, it doesn’t appear to have happened yet. Amy Black remains relatively unknown to the broader music industry, a capable and consistent performer with a loyal fan base.

Once again, I found myself lost in the thought, “If only the rest of the world could experience this music, they would get it, too.”

Maybe it will happen with The Muscle Shoals Sessions, Amy Black’s new album. I know ‘everyone’ is recording in Muscle Shoals these days, and with excellent results. But man, The Muscle Shoals Sessions might be my favourite so far.

It has that absolutely infectious deep soul groove permeating every song. Spooner Oldham brings emotional and historical depth to the proceedings, laying out funky Wurlitzer and organ. Will Kimbrough is back. Vocal certainty is provided by the McCrary sisters, Ann and Regina. Notable horn players are also present, with Charlie Rose taking the lead and playing trombone, while Steve Herrman (trumpet) and Jim Hoke (saxophone) are featured.

Recorded in the legendary FAME studios, Black compositions like “Get To Me” and “Woman On Fire” sizzle with energy, while “You Gotta Move” and “Bring It On Home” are more passionate and controlled. Classics abound with “You Left Your Water Running” and Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move” closing the disc with wisdom found only in the finest of songs.

When she laments, “I know I hurt you deep down inside,  I know you’re angry I understand why,” one could be forgiven for believing Black to be interpreting a long forgotten Otis Redding gem. She isn’t, of course—the song is a new one, and is as strong as anything else on the album. Black’s performance here proves all the evidence necessary, should one require it, that she is legitimately a country soul singer of the most significant variety. She smolders without seduction—there is nothing here but genuine, aching need—while the band explores rhythms of the finest order.

Black pays tribute to Don Covey and Etta James with a blistering rendition of “Watch Dog,” while her interpretation of “Gotta Serve Somebody” further elevates the album by exploring the more spiritual side of soul music.

Amy Black ‘gets it’ and hopefully some of you will, too. The Muscle Shoals Sessions is released June 9 and deserves to be heard by all who appreciate the funkier, soulful side of roots music. Amy Black just keeps getting better.

I’ve been playing this album weekly and sometimes daily for the last month; it will continue to get play all summer long. Beautiful.

Thanks, as always, for making time for Fervor Coulee; I may not be much, but I am passionate!


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