The Unsettled Past: Revisionist histories from Liz Brasher, Yola, & Adia Victoria

silences

The past is unsettled. It’s not recounted so much as interpreted, and on a trio of distinguished albums by dynamic singer/songwriters, interpretation is exactly what you got—three different visions of the rich American roots lineage, all filtered through personal experience and seen through the lens of modernity. Liz Brasher’s Painted Image salutes the music of Memphis in an act of sophisticated synthesis and loving pastiche. Yola’s Walk Through Fire channels country and soul through immaculate studio-craft and stylized arrangements. And Adia Victoria’s Silences kicks the blues tradition down a rickety set of stairs and into a haunted house of her own diabolical invention. In a roots scene that’s sometimes bogged down by questions of authenticity, these albums are refreshing for choosing slanted imagination over historic replica. That all three are made by authoritative women of color—too often excluded from these idioms—is a bonus of considerable magnitude.

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You could call Brasher’s album a study in tangled roots. A church singer by training, she grew up in North Carolina but decamped to Memphis for the Painted Image sessions, and the result is a sumptuous consolidation of the city’s robust musical pedigree. The cavernous spaces of Sun, the tight rhythms of Hi, the raucous melisma of the gospel tradition, the wee-small-hours heartache of the blues—all of the pieces are here, but they’re not always arranged in the way you’d expect them to be. Brasher brings an outsider’s love but no binding allegiance to Memphis culture, which frees her to play it straight and play it loose in equal measure. Songs like “Blood of the Lamb,” which opens the album with the hazy hum of an organ, the low moan of a brass section, and the reverberant crawl of an electric guitar, hint at roads not taken, suggesting Brasher could spend a career slinking and belting her way through tightly-framed retro soul. She’s even better on the roiling, string-soaked “Cold Baby,” a song of romantic dissolution so tremulous and fraught, it sounds like the center won’t hold and the whole thing could at any moment implode. These are expressive, emotionally weighty reproductions of classic tropes, but Brasher throws some curveballs with “Hand on the Plow,” which sounds like Willie Mitchell’s percolating grooves as interpreted by Steely Dan, and “Every Day,” where the horns return for a high-and-lonesome Mariachi fanfare—a geographic detour but also an effective accent piece to the atmospheric and forlorn songs that surround it. “Painted Image” closes the album with chamber strings and a Spanish guitar, but rather than offering a genteel denouement, Brasher casts it as an echoing, impressionistic fever dream—woozy immersion in longing and regret.

There are plenty of both of those things in Brasher’s songs, all originals and often with lyrics that are as conflicted as her arrangements are sure-footed. Many of them chronicle inflection points, lovers forced to either grip harder or let go of their fraying bond. (“Don’t you know ‘maybe’ never saved no one?” she asks in “Moon Baby,” haunted pop that shimmers and insinuates.) The songs where she sounds surest happen to be the ones forged in gospel resolve. She’s comfortable enough with her faith vocabulary to spin a few sly jokes (“pillar of salt in my lot”) but also to use it as her compass blade and guiding light: “Laid my life down at the throne/ and I ain’t going back no more,” she sings on “Hand to the Plow,” a song of perseverance and a reminder that you gotta serve somebody. To that end, the Pentecostal clap-along “Living Water” sounds like it’s about Jesus, but the spectral “Heaven and Earth” has its scale tipped terrestrially. Here Brasher longs to love and be loved in both body and soul, and whatever whispered mysticism is there gets swallowed up by the howling carnality. It’s the lynchpin for an album that’s anchored in a particular piece of soil but exists to both ennoble and transcend it.

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Brasher isn’t the only one whose love of American roots idioms is adoptive. The woman born Yola Carter hails from Britain but carries a torch for classic C&W, which might explain why her debut Walk Through Fire filters extravagant countrypolitan lushness through the baroque constructions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. She made the album with producer Dan Auerbach, who has a knack for scrupulous studio constructions that are richly detailed but also spacious and funky—see also his underacknowledged Dr. John team-up, Locked Down—and Walk Through Fire features a murderer’s row of studio talents that range from bluegrass virtuosos to veteran Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley sidemen. What they conjure here is an airy yet ornate interpretation of classic country/soul, often assembled with the same intricacy and care you’d find in any given frame of a Wes Anderson film. Album opener “Faraway Look” has sighing strings, twinkling harpsichord, chiming bells, even little flecks of brass—and if that sounds a shade too twee, it’s only because you haven’t heard the Richter-scale force Yola can summon when she sings. Pictured on the album cover with an acoustic guitar in hand, her image faintly recalls truth-telling poet-warriors like Odetta and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, perceptions that the album’s soft edges only slightly dispel. She’s a magnetic force, a singer of regal clarity and curlicued precision but also thunderous power; on the verses of “Faraway Look” she plays the calm at the center of the storm, but by the time the supersized chorus sweeps in she’s turned into a tempest. Her magnitudinous boom makes it clear early on that the album’s delicacy won’t scan as anemic gentility, and the rest of the songs bear her out. Each one is a delicate jewel, even (or especially) the ones that work up a little rustic grit: Listen to the sawing fiddles and harmonica on “Walk Through Fire,” little embers of twang that gradually get fanned into an all-consuming flame. Yola has an easy way with a melody, and her lavish arrangements are complimented by tunes that are simple and direct: “Ride Out in the Country” sounds every bit like a breezy car ride on a warm spring day, while “It Ain’t Easier” finds breathing room within layers of fiddle and steel guitar—a wispy country weeper. She also exhibits a vast formal command, easily building “Lonely the Night” from a simmering Delta groove into a gleaming Phil Specter chorus, and packing maximum emotion into a tight package on “Keep Me Here,” a lovelorn saloon song where she gets tears in her beer and a vocal assist from the great Vince Gill.

Just as Yola’s voice holds both gale-force weather and judicious restraint, her songwriting carves space for resonant strength and harrowing vulnerability. There’s no question that this is a heartache album, full of long nights and bitter regrets; Yola’s characters toss and turn in their beds, they talk to shadows, and they desperately try to stave off the ebb of memory. (In interviews to promote the album, she’s been frank about her survival of an abusive relationship.) Her gift is for plainspeak, but her songs are littered with carefully-sprung bear traps; “Ride Out in the Country” sounds at first like a simple confession about going somewhere to forget a broken heart, but of course it’s not so simple at all: “Falling out of love with you/ It’s not an easy thing to do/ But you don’t care about me, baby.” Such knife-twists are manifold, and they’re always deployed with disarming frankness; “That faraway look in your eyes/ is getting harder to disguise,” she sings in the opening song, quietly appraising a love grown cold. But if Walk Through Fire is an album of brokenness, it’s also a catalyst for healing: It was a house fire that turned Yola’s world to rubble and precipitated these new songs, and she turns the experience into a potent metaphor for weathering seasons of intense trial. “The red hot coals are calling/ And I know it’s the only way/ There ain’t no use in prolonging/ The fact that I just can’t stay,” she sings, seeking forward motion even when it’s painful. These aren’t new metaphors, of course, but what makes Yola so compelling is how she makes everything here feel like it’s part of her story, even as she uses the vocabulary of all the firewalkers who have gone before her.

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Boldest of all is Silences, from the startlingly visionary and self-assured poet, singer, guitarist, and blues insurrectionist Adia Victoria. She’s spoken openly about how the blues idiom was the prototype for punk and about how her mission is to restore its sense of danger, talking points she shares with many an old-timey twelve-bar revivalist—only she actually means it, and proves in on this uncompromising set of music. She enlisted The National’s Aaron Dessner to produce, and together they transmute Skip James’ haunted austerity, Robert Johnson’s ghost stories, Howlin’ Wolf’s ribald exuberance, and Ma Rainey’s rural vernacular into something bracingly contemporary. On paper it may not read much like traditional blues, yet as it plays it never sounds like it could be anything else: Bernard Herrmann string cues, chilly electronics, woodwind thrum, shards of electric guitar fuzz, and sinister trip-hop beats work together to lurch and howl, lull and menace. You can hear a few quick bars of finger-picked acoustic guitar at the start of “Bring Her Back,” but that droning loop quickly builds into a heady swirl of drums, skronking brass, and alien keyboard effects. It’s merely one of the most obvious bridges between past and future, and its counterpart is the roaring late-album highlight “Dope Queen Blues,” where a clenched stride piano motif is torn and frayed by hissing electronics and spritely horns. Victoria knows the blues well enough that its mordant bent is offset by a defiant lust for life, and there’s an unsettling glee to the spiked cabaret number “Devil is a Lie.” But she can also burrow deep into anguished introspection, as she does in the chilly, wide-open soundscape of “Cry Wolf.” In an album that consistently tilts and disorients, Victoria is the gravitational force that holds everything together. Though she has a storyteller’s performative zeal, she mostly passes on big gestures in favor of the low embers of her voice, pitched somewhere between Eartha Kitt and Valerie June with just a bit of Fiona Apple’s tremulous quiver. She projects total calm even in the songs that are most harrowing, an aesthetic choice that ratchets up the tension considerably.

Hers are songs that could only be fermented by the blood and soil of the American South, here presented as a landscape peppered with Jesus Saves signs and strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Victoria’s another Carolina girl who was raised in church—hooked on eternity and other drugs, as David Bazan might say—and whose early adulthood has been a reckoning with various kinds of oppression and internal friction. That she’s shaken off the faith of her fathers is something she makes clear in the grim opener “Clean,” where it’s midnight in the garden of good and evil and she’s a kind of deicidal Van Helsing, stalking the Almighty and ultimately plunging a knife in His chest.  It’s a macabre fantasy that’s immediately followed by “Bring Her Back,” sung from the perspective of a dead girl who spoke out when she shouldn’t have and paid the price. The specter of lynching looms large, and whatever metaphysical reverie Victoria abides is shattered by the blunt-force trauma of the N-word, deployed just once to situate these songs not in ether or abstraction but in actual human bodies, bruised and bloodied.

Victoria is drawn to the grotesque, a form she uses to paint human malice and divine discontent in the starkest terms possible. It’s a trait she shares with sage-of-sages Flannery O’Connor, to whom she is an avowed devotee, and who famously distinguished between the Christ-centered and the Christ-haunted. Silences is decidedly the latter, though really it’s not even the ragged fugitive Jesus who haunts Victoria so much as the hellhounds on her trail. The devil is all over this record, presented as both living entity and as manifestation of personal demons—and either way, his presence is tormenting. There are the makings here of a grand, gothic drama, a battle for the singer’s soul: On “Devil is a Lie” the Prince of Darkness brings all her plans to ruin, yet on “Pacolet Road” it’s her faith that makes a fool of her. Forces of good and evil give Silences its dramatic framing, but her metaphysics are enfleshed by personal experience. You get the sense that the howl and snarl of Victoria’s music are designed to drown out the unholy clamber of what Richard Thompson calls “the rattle within,” and on “Cry Wolf” Victoria begs and pleads and promises to be good, knowing full well that she’s broken such promises before. “Nice Folks” hears that death rattle emanating from just below the white-washed gentility of Southern manners (the folks O’Conner might call “good country people”), and you wouldn’t be crazy to think of Dr. King and his castigation of political moderates—evil’s most reasonable and well-intentioned bedfellows. “Heathen” is a song about recalcitrant women (and the men who love them), making the most of an ungovernable spirit; amidst smoky jazz, Victoria offers a cheerful fuck-you to anyone who wants her to compromise or to crawl. These songs suggest isolation, but the closing “Get Lonely” reaches out for union. Over a cavernous trance beat, she coos to a partner: “I want to get lonely with you.” It’s the desolate love song of two heathens who reckon they might yet be redeemed.