I’ve been on a bit of a music buying tear lately. Today I went downtown and picked up three more albums. All three of these records came out in 2019, bringing my total for the year to an even 50. I'll talk about those ones when I roll them but for now, here is a solid record from earlier in the year.
Disc 1321 is… Walk Through Fire
Year of Release: 2019
What’s up with the Cover? Like the rest of this record, the cover is a throwback to the seventies. As a left-handed person I must once again point out that this artist is holding her guitar backwards. What’s up with 95% of the population getting it wrong?
How I Came to Know It: I read a review online and decided to give it a chance. I discover a lot of my music through good ole’ research.
How It Stacks Up: This is Yola’s first full length solo album so it can’t really stack up against anything.
Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4
If you read enough music reviews, you’ll eventually come across the expression ‘derivative crap’. It’s practically a frozen phrase at this point. However, could something be derivative yet, through its own sheer brilliance, end up sounding fresh and beautiful anyway? The answer is yes, and it is exactly what happens on “Walk Through Fire”.
Yola’s debut record feels like it fell out of a time capsule from 1977; the long-gestating baby of the Nashville country and A.M. radio schmaltz-pop of its time. Forty years later, fully formed, it arrived as though it had sprung from the forehead of Kenny Rogers or Rod Stewart or – somehow - both.
Those two styles of music have a lot in common, particularly the smooth, rounded production. Everything on “Walk Through Fire” sounds studio perfect, with every musician playing some form of earnest perfection designed to make you feel all the feels, while protecting you from trauma. You can get overwrought if you like, but it’s like you’re in a room where all the furniture is padded; you’ll be OK even if you have a fainting spell.
I happen to love studio perfection. I even heretically like my punk music to sound professional. As a result, all those pianos, steel guitars and soaring strings coming in at just the right time and then gracefully bowing out before they overstay their welcome is just fine with me.
It also helps that Yola employs some brilliant musicians, including Vince Gill on backing vocals, and the unmatchable Molly Tuttle on guitar. I would have liked Molly to have a bit more of a showcase, but that’s not how this smooth style works – everyone surrenders a little bit to the soft shoulders of the song.
You can take all this smooth too far, to the point where you strip the raw emotion out of a song. It is why the Nashville Sound (and its bastard child, New Country) rarely find a place in my heart. It is also why you won’t find my record collected festooned with A.M. radio classics of my youth. Get too far down the road of ‘just right’ and you end up in the land of ‘precious’ or even worse, ‘dear’.
For the most part, Yola avoids this plush-lined pit-trap, and she does it with the two things you can’t falsify; strong songwriting and an exceptional vocal instrument.
The songwriting duties are principally the collaborative work of Yola and Dan Auerbach and a few other folks here and there that you can read about if spend some of your damn money and buy the record. The songs are sneaky-simple, sometimes just consisting of an A section and a chorus and always wrapping up well shy of five minutes.
However, within this simplicity, they accomplish a lot, creating songs that feel like the soaring celebratory anthems and introspective soliloquys that makes you think you are in the musical of Yola’s life.
The second thing is her voice, which is as good as it gets. I’m no sucker for diva-style singing but there was just no resisting Yola’s combination of power and sweetness. Don’t expect a bunch of runs and vocal gymnastics on this record either; she doesn’t need to resort to such parlour tricks. She just settles back and belts the songs out, demonstrating exceptional controlled auditory horsepower at every level of her voice.
There are times when it feels almost too perfect, and I start worrying about that whole derivative thing again, but then like a fine engine she powers through the corner and sets my mind at ease.
A great example is “Lonely the Night” a song with all kinds of things that should go wrong. Indulgent piano, organ and an o-so-smooth production that sets you up for bathos of the worst order. A few lines of Yola singing mournfully about generic love and strained disco-era sentiments like “Once upon a time I wished for a love like you/But I guess sometimes wishes don’t come true” and I was getting nervous.
Then the chorus hits, soaring with authority into the God-damned stratosphere as she belts out:
“Lonely the night, lonely the night
Only the night belongs to those who’ve lost their love.”
It’s not much of a lyric either, but the way it launches its way out of that slow corner, propelled by Yola’s ridiculous power, with the electric guitar desperately wailing in the background and trying to keep up, it just can’t be denied. And yes, the guitar cuts out long before any excess is reached.
Topically, the songs stick to love and redemption, and the generic nature of the language might have survived another round of edits, but at the same time I’m not sure these songs would benefit from too much literary dynamics. It would take away from the simple emotion of a record where about the worst thing you can say is that it is a little too perfect.
Best tracks: Faraway Look, Ride Out in the Country, Rock Me Gently, Love All Night (Work All Day), Lonely the Night