Lick and Purr and Give You a Scratch: Tami Neilson goes bananas

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Tami Neilson’s “Bananas” may or may not stand as 2018’s best song about gender inequality. If nothing else, it will almost surely be the one with the highest quality and quantity of dick jokes. Ostensibly riffing on “Tomatogate,” the 2015 scandal in which a leading country radio programmer offered dubious business justifications for the marginalization of female singers, Nielson’s song offers one fruit-flavored double entendre after another in its uproarious dismissal of a male-dominated industry. “Bananas here/ Bananas there/ Seems it’s nothing but bananas everywhere,” Neilson winks—and then she tips the metaphor on its head (so to speak): “It’s banana she want equal pay/ Just for workin’ all night and day.”

It may seem like a novelty, and in fact it almost sounds like one. Nielson’s tune affects the Caribbean lilt of 1950s exotica, calypso roots filtered through Vegas razzle-dazzle. It’s topical, it’s jokey, and it’s sung with a Broadway singer’s performative zeal. But pay attention to how sharp the writing is—not just for how it turns its metaphors inside and out, but for its crisp, canny internal rhymes (“it’ll leave you reeling when you hit the glass ceiling/ Watch your pretty head, take my advice/ Best think twice, just play nice”). And if you listen past the island horns to the high-and-lonesome pedal steel, you’ll hear how the song’s tethered to country traditions. It’s a smart piece of writing, and its wage-inequality protests pack at least as much punch as, say, Margo Price’s similarly themed “Pay Gap,” not least because Neilson’s song has better jokes. Thus it becomes a key to unlocking Sassafrass!, the quietly audacious album to which it belongs—a country album that feels rooted in its craft, yet never held back by conservatism; an album that inhabits many of the conversations the #metoo movement has nurtured, but also feels like it’s made to weather the times and offer enduring appeal.

As a singer, Neilson is a powerhouse, an old-school soul belter who aims for the rafters but never compromises her control, her crisp enunciation, her rounded phrasing. Opener “Stay Outta My Business” is a brassy, retro R&B number; Neilson is coy and commanding, making it clear she could have made an entire career following in Amy Winehouse’s footsteps, though she’s even better on the more ragged, in-the-red rave-up “Miss Jones,” a tribute to Sharon Jones done in the Daptone house style. Neilson handles the quieter moments with similar grace: On the swaying “One Thought of You,” she plays the role of Rosemary Clooney, courting daydreams with slow-burning sensuality. Song after song finds her leaning into character work with an actorly sense of drama: In “A Woman’s Pain” she’s the jaded narrator, trying to keep a cool head despite simmering rage; in “Kitty Cat” she’s a teenage Wanda Jackson, howling and sneering atop woozy rockabilly.

The songs on Sassafrass!—many of them co-writes between Neilson and her brother Jay—run amok with coy, cagy, and often contradictory femininity. When Neilson wonders whether one of her characters is a “damsel in distress” or a “devil in a dress,” she’s playing with archetypes, and the answer is none (or is it all?) of the above. (Somehow it’s reminiscent of Cardi B’s musing: “Is she a stripper, a rapper, or singer?” The whole point is that labels just don’t apply.) Elsewhere, she shows that she can build entire songs from attitude and innuendo, as she does in “Kitty Cat” (“She might… lick and purr and give you a scratch/ but that don’t mean she’s your kitty cat”). She addresses inequality with devastating precision, as in “Stay Outta My Business,” where working moms are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. And, she turns stories and types inside out; listen to how “A Woman’s Pain” flips the account of Adam and Eve into inequality’s origin story: “The moment her lips touched forbidden fruit/ He said, ‘I’ll curse you with pain and a man will rule you.’” “Smoking Gun” dances all around recent headlines, charting the abuses of the Hollywood casting couch without ever feeling like it’s tied to the news cycle; “Diamond Ring,” meanwhile, is ruthlessly efficient storytelling, a novelistic pile-up of little details: “Hit the button, elevator goin’ up/ a black leather shoe jams the door before it shuts.”

Too lively to feel retro and too rooted to be a novelty, Sassafrass! is a record that lives within a historic continuum even as it tangles with the ugly present. Throughout these songs, Neilson is engaged in the work of righteousness, using tropes and tradition, withering humor and simmering indignation to paint a picture of three-dimensional femininity and complex humanity. Maybe that’s why she ends the record with a song of desolate vulnerability (“Manitoba Sunrise at Motel Six,” a heartsick road song) and then one of romantic allegiance (“Good Man,” where she clings to love even when it seems like a longshot)—flip sides of the same coin, and emotional anchors on a record that’s far too wise to ever be just one thing.

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