Album Review: Tami Neilson, SASSAFRASS!

Tami Neilson

SASSAFRASS!

With its sinister guitar figure and slightly off-kilter percussion, “Smoking Gun,” just one standout track among many on Tami Neilson’s SASSAFRASS!, immediately recalls Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang.” Neilson explicitly evokes the Sinatra tune when she sings, “Bang bang / Goes the smoking gun,” on the song’s hook. What works so brilliantly about this evocation is how Sinatra’s version of “Bang Bang” has figured into recent popular culture. It’s used as a recurring motif in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, a samurai-superhero-spaghetti Western that finds a woman recovering her agency by exacting bloody revenge against those who violently rejected her choice of motherhood.

The legacy of Tarantino’s film has become more complicated in recent months, with the knowledge of how Tarantino treated the film’s star, Uma Thurman, going so far as to risk her life during the filming of a memorable action set-piece. Thurman, for her part, emerged as one of the most powerful voices of the #MeToo movement, barely concealing her rage against powerful film producer Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein’s production company, Miramax, of course, was the primary source of funding for Kill Bill and for all of Tarantino’s films.

It’s no accident, then, that “Smoking Gun” is a song about “the king of the casting couch” creeping “beneath the Hollywood sign,” finally facing his overdue reckoning. That Weinstein was formally indicted for rape just days prior to the release of SASSAFRASS! only gives greater weight to Neilson’s already powerful song; the types of abuses she’s singing about on “Smoking Gun” certainly aren’t exclusive to Weinstein, and the song isn’t “about” him in a literal sense. But, as a matter of timing, the context makes SASSAFRASS! sound all the more vital.

Perhaps what’s most remarkable about SASSAFRASS! is how most every track is similarly fraught with this kind of heady, of-the-moment context. The songs here invite then reward active engagement and analysis. Neilson’s work has always traded in a skillful balance between a retro-minded aesthetic and a contemporary point-of-view, but tracks like “Bananas,” “A Woman’s Pain,” and lead single “Stay Outta My Business” all bristle with a ripped-from-the-headlines urgency. The quality of Neilson’s songwriting, the control that Neilson and co-producer Ben Edwards demonstrate in their production choices, and the range and power of Neilson’s vocal performances would all, on their own merits, make SASSAFRASS! a great album. But its timeliness elevates it further: It’s an album that feels important.

Ultimately, SASSAFRASS! is a reminder of how powerful country music can be at its best. It’s no small feat to tackle difficult social issues in ways that are compelling and smart while still creating music that also functions as escapism. And, for all of its thematic heft, SASSAFRASS! is fun. “Stay Outta My Business” kicks things off with a rollicking, swaggering slice of vintage R&B as Neilson confronts the double-standards faced by working mothers, while “Bananas” tackles #TomatoGate and the wage gap with some Jungle Book-inspired production and plenty of double entendres. “Kitty Cat” invokes similar wordplay as Neilson sings about a woman’s sexual agency, and its production imagines what Wanda Jackson’s music might have sounded like if she had just started recording in the aughts. Even better is “Miss Jones,” the tribute to the late Sharon Jones: The song is a triumph, extolling Jones’ virtues as a performer while perfectly capturing the spirit of what made her great.

The album is less overtly country than either Dynamite! or Don’t Be Afraid, but the tracks that lean more heavily into country signifiers are among the strongest. Second single “Manitoba Sunrise at Motel Six” favorably recalls the rich Americana of Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac and The River and The Thread. Again, Neilson addresses the life of a performer, with the lines, “8000 miles from home, I just looked it up / This ain’t my bed, my TV, or my coffee cup,” making for an evocative opening couplet.  Both “One Thought Of You” and album-closing “Good Man” are pure countrypolitan torch ballads, the latter of which boasts one of the most jaw-dropping vocal performances of Neilson’s career.

Neilson is known for both the control and the power of her singing, and there are precious few contemporary vocalists who could match her performances on SASSAFRASS! She struts and wails her way through “Miss Jones” and “Stay Outta My Business,” digs deep into the loneliness of “Manitoba Sunrise at Motel Six,” and owns her choices with authority on “Diamond Ring.” Her mastery of the range of styles she explores on the album is an impressive display of versatility, but it’s even more significant in that it allows her to give a unique voice to each of the women she’s singing about over the course of the record.

The country industry continues to be steeped in active misogyny. Only a handful of women regularly make inroads at country radio, and most of those who do generally share a similar, narrowly-defined perspective that aligns with how the genre’s men sing about women; Neilson even lambastes that portrayal of woman as a “one-dimensional fantasy” on “Devil in a Dress.” Meanwhile, the genre’s women— both within the mainstream and along the periphery— keep making a disproportionate amount of its best music. Tami Neilson has long belonged in the conversation of the genre’s greatest talents; with SASSAFRASS!, a once-in-a-generation talent has released the kind of game-changing album that’s rare in both its quality and its vitality.

Recommended Tracks: Is it cheating to say, “All of them?” Because all of them.

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