A few years back I was lucky to see Amythyst Kiah play at the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues festival where she wowed the crowd with her impressive banjo skills, distinctive voice and engaging stories. Her collaboration with Our Native Daughters was one of my favourite albums of the last few years and Kiah gained a richly deserved Grammy nomination for Black Myself, her brilliant contribution to that outstanding project. She follows that up with this powerful new album Wary + Strange, produced by Tony Berg.
In Black Myself she found her fire, her passion and her artistic blueprint. It’s no surprise then that she re-recorded it for this project, blowing it up into a blistering widescreen rock and roll thumper. Her rallying call against systematic racism and everyday discrimination sounds as potent and relevant as first listen. By the end of the song she acknowledges that there’s Still some work to do – on this evidence she’s ready to get it done, without compromise or fear.
In Wild Turkey she shows equally admirable bravery in the unflinching honesty of the lyrics, about the death of her mother and the subsequent impact on her life. Such a devastating song feels less like catharsis and more like finally acknowledging an old wound, one that had been long hidden rather than healed.
Numbing yourself, escaping from reality and the truth of life is the theme of the record. On Hangover Blues she doesn’t mind the pain of her broken relationship or drinking, saying If I did it all over again, I’d do the same damn thing anyhow.
Fancy Drones (Fracture Me) is also about how we try to escape reality through phones, magazines, pills, whatever we can use to get through. It hurts to think…it hurts to feel, she sings over some of the most interesting musical arrangements on the album. We are drones, automatons, crying out for real connection.
Firewater is a melancholy and wistful dream which lets her voice go a little higher and sweeter. It’s really beautiful, even if the lyrics are about depression, doom and crying on the floor after drinking too much, even knowing the alcohol won’t save her doesn’t matter. Can you just leave me be, she sings sinking into the blur.
Her voice is arresting on the opening to Tender Organs, a stunning bluesy song which confronts her own internal emotional and physical pain. She doesn’t find any solutions or answers – just by singing them, bringing them to the surface she might have a chance for relief.
Then we have a lovely traditional country song on Ballad of Lost, with gorgeous pedal steel soundtracking her heartbreak and loneliness. Roots music must do all it can to celebrate and promote an artist as talented as Kiah, so it’s great to hear that she will be playing the Opry soon as well as her nominations in the Americana awards.
Sleeping Queen is the most musically experimental song on the album, lyrically it keeps close to her ideas about the emptiness of modern life. Humanity is a combination of great beauty and great horror, she concludes uncertain how to wake up the world to a better, more fulfilling and unified future.
Opaque is a bluesier number, singing of someone struggling to connect, who can’t reach out their hand for help and is washed away in the flood of life. Whether that’s her mother, a lover or a friend you feel by singing these songs she is doing all she can to overcome that lonely fate.
The album finishes where is began with the vignette Soapbox, about dismissing the endless stream of other people’s opinions and being true to yourself. As the strings swell you hear freedom, a confidence in what she’s accomplished and had the courage to say.
Music saves us from atrophy, from emptiness, from emotional death. Amythyst Kiah has been through the darkness and doom of life, and survived to sing the story. The songs on Wary & Strange offer a tonic to lift the spirit – no hangover necessary.
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