Mama Gotta Hustle: Tami Neilson redefines retro

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Everything about Tami Neilson is a throwback— from her beehive hairdo to the faded glam-shot artwork of her new album, CHICKABOOM! Even the ad copy that appears under the album title, anointing her “The Hot Rockin’ Lady of Country, Rockabilly & Soul,” seems to promise something like an old-timey magic trick; a costumed conjuring of something you’d typically only see at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But anyone expecting museum memorabilia or nostalgic wish fulfillment has never heard the hot rockin’ lady sing. While it’s true that CHICKABOOM! dazzles in its retro chic, at times suggesting a stylish soundtrack to an imagined Quentin Tarantino film, the music is just too loud, too raucous, too electric to ever sound like a relic. Wherever Neilson does her thing, no dust can settle, no cobwebs can form.

CHICKABOOM! isn’t a nostalgia play so much as a reinvigoration of classic tropes— a combustible cross-pollination of Wanda Jackson riffs, Patsy Cline waterworks, Bo Diddley thunder, and, on “Any Fool with a Heart,” soft-touch uptown pop. All of it’s presented not with an archivist’s academic caution, but with a stage actress’ dramatic flair and a garage band’s appetite for destruction. It feels very much like the right kind of album for Neilson to make following 2018’s superb SASSAFRASS!, which went deep and wide and showed the full range of what she’s capable of. Her virtuosity indisputable, Neilson can now turn her attention to just blowing shit up, which is kinda what CHICKABOOM! feels like: A box of fireworks, where the singer lights one short fuse after another and lets these songs burn fast and bright in a blaze of snarling guitars and crackling drums. It’s almost like a jukebox singles record, where there’s never a dull moment and only a couple of songs that push past three minutes; in the longest, “When You Were Mine,” Neilson uses the full three-and-a-half minute runway to mine maximum existential anguish from her Muscle Shoals hotbox. More representative of the album’s spring-loaded mayhem is “Hey Bus Driver!,” a concentrated dose of thumping toms, barbed-wire guitar riffs, and punchy Sun Records primitivism. 

Neilson grew up touring and singing in a family band, showbiz experience that’s always been her secret weapon: She’s got obvious natural talent but also knows how to sing with clarity and precision, how to hit her marks, how to work a crowd. “When You Were Mine” is the showstopper, the one where Neilson starts in the low embers of the blues and builds to in-the-red catharsis, putting her vocal cords straight through the shredder as she howls in anguish. It’s a controlled eruption, and a stark contrast to the nonchalant opener “Call Your Mama,” where Neilson sends an unworthy dude packing, brandishing sneers and snarls like a showboating gunslinger. She’s also unafraid to ham it up sometimes, cackling her way through “Ten Tonne Truck,” about a successful woman laughing all the way to the bank. (“HA HA HA!”)

The album’s 10 little bottle rockets— originals, once again written with brother Jay, who also sings and plays on the album— address concerns that never go out of style: Love, heartbreak, hard work, the open road, money and its absence. The heartbreak songs are imaginative: “16 Miles of Chain” is a hardscrabble drama where love is literal imprisonment, while “You Were Mine” looks to a formative loss as an event that cleaved time in two. But Neilson is at her best, her toughest, her prickliest when she’s singing about her hustle, as she does in “Ten Tonne Truck,” about the alchemic formula of luck and grit required to make big bucks in Nashville. Speaking of which, it wouldn’t be a Tami Neilson album without a few choice words about the absence of women on today’s country charts, something she takes care of with mirthless one-liners in “Queenie, Queenie.” The same song gets to another of her core strengths, which is embodying a feminism that ennobles domesticity and leaves plenty of room for working mothers. “What’s a stay-at-home mom do with all that time?” she deadpans as the bills and dirty dishes pile up, drums clattering like a ticking timebomb or a Jeopardy! buzzer. That song is a pressure cooker, but there’s release in “Sister Mavis,” a pentecostal rave-up where Neilson rides high atop handclaps and jangling tambourines, espousing a holy canon where synoptic gospels share space with Mavis Staples, Sister Rosetta, and Mahila Jackson. There’s nothing stuffy or forced about its hero worship: Like the rest of CHICKABOOM!, it uses the past as a powder keg; the first spark of a righteous ruckus. 

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 bananas 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.