While 2018’s SASSAFRASS! was Tami Neilson’s wide-ranging exploration of contemporary gender politics, Chickaboom! broadens her scope without losing any of its predecessor’s power or insight. One of the recurring themes of SASSAFRASS! was the burden, unique to working women, of social and internal pressure to do it all. On Chickaboom!, Neilson sets out to prove that she actually can do damn near anything, both figuratively and literally.
The retro-styled cover art dubs Neilson, “The hot rockin’ lady of country, rockabilly, and soul,” and that somehow manages to undersell the range of her extraordinary talent. Neilson has always taken a playful and purposeful approach to genre, and certainly each of those three genres figures prominently on Chickaboom! But she’s no mere dilettante. The ease with which Neilson draws specific influences into each track with spot-on instincts as to how a stylistic flourish will enhance a particular song is one of her strengths as an artist. Whether that’s dropping her voice into a lower register to heighten the menace in her delivery on the chorus of “Call Your Mama” and affecting a sarcastic laugh to highlight the self-deception and irony in “Ten Tonne Truck” or singing the chorus of “Tell Me That You Love Me” at a delirious double-time tempo, every choice that Neilson makes over the course of Chickaboom! is fascinating and fundamentally correct.
The album may be Neilson’s most overtly country-sounding since Dynamite!, but it’s really a matter of country music being lucky to be able to claim her as one of its own. “Call Your Mama” imagines what a Wynonna single might sound like in 2020 had Wynonna doubled-down on her early hybrid of country and blues. “Hey, Bus Driver!” “Ten Tonne Truck,” and “Tell Me That You Love Me” all draw heavily from rockabilly, while “Sister Mavis” is, appropriately, a gospel rave-up. The most surprising and perhaps most effective production choice on the album is “Queenie, Queenie,” which recasts some vicious— and hilarious— lines about being both a touring musician and a mother as a schoolyard chant, set only to some rhythm sticks. It’s The Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” as a modern feminist manifesto, and it just works.
As remarkable as each of those songs are, the centerpiece of Chickaboom! is “You Were Mine,” a song of loss and the inability to move on that burrows into the blues. Neilson’s gifts as a singer have been well-known since her debut, but she’s never recorded anything as raw or powerful as what she unleashes on “You Were Mine.” It’s a once-in-a-generation performance. Her technique is simply perfect: She doesn’t sacrifice the quality of her vocal tone even as she crescendos to a full-throated, from-the-gut wail, and every note, no matter where it falls in a run, is in the dead center of the pitch. That such technique is in service to a performance of palpable anguish and even rage? Precious few, if any, other vocalists in contemporary music could match what Neilson does on this song.
“You Were Mine” details the aftermath of a doomed relationship, but Neilson co-wrote it while in the throes of another type of loss: The death of her father. Indeed, Chickaboom! is an album that trades in the complexities of families. At times, Neilson can’t wait to get back home (“Hey, Bus Driver!”) and, at others, feels the strain of obligations (“Queenie, Queenie”). The pursuit of romance is variously freewheeling and carefree (“Tell Me That You Love Me”), painful and unrequited (“Any Fool With a Heart”), and literal ties-that-bind (“16 Miles of Chain”). “Ten Tonne Truck” draws from Neilson’s personal history as the youngest performer in her traveling family band, while “Sister Mavis” allows her to pay homage to an idol with whom, as an adult, she had the privilege to share a stage. Chickaboom! isn’t a proper concept album, but it’s a thematically rich work that rewards active listening and impresses for Neilson’s ability to adopt different points-of-view from song to song.
No less significant is that Chickaboom! is, like all of Neilson’s previous albums, simply fun. There’s no pretense here. Neilson’s throwback aesthetic— truly, the beehive she’s rocking these days is an architectural wonder— is a loving homage that is refreshing for its lack of ironic remove. Like the late Amy Winehouse, Neilson is better than just about anyone at marrying a style that looks to the past with a perspective and artistic voice that are of-the-moment current. Even the album’s breakneck run-time— its ten tracks clock in at under 30 minutes, and just two of the songs go longer than 3 minutes— contributes to its charm. Beyond that charm attack, though, Neilson is as serious an artist as is recording right now. Chickaboom! isn’t just Tami Neilson’s finest album to date, it’s the first canon-worthy album of the new decade.
Recommended Tracks: “You Were Mine,” “Ten Tonne Truck,” “Queenie, Queenie,” “Sister Mavis”