Allison Russell “The Returner”

Fantasy Records, 2023

Funk blends seamlessly with country folk in a joyous celebration of life and hope.

Allison Russell had a twenty year career with various collaborations before she released her debut autobiographical solo album, ‘Outside Child’, which chronicled her abusive childhood in Canada, in 2021. While Allison Russell is also an activist and poet as well as a singer-songwriter, that didn’t mean that the album was full of dour wordy songs, rather the opposite, as Russell found hope while dealing head-on with very hard subject matter. The music was an eclectic mix of soul and jazz grooves with the country folk core which helped push the cathartic nature of the lyrics. While ‘Outside Child’ looks back to her childhood, ‘The Returner’ is firmly in the present and looks forward to the future as Allison Russell celebrates survivor’s joy. The album title is inspired by Joni Mitchell’s determination to relearn not only how to play and sing, but also how to speak and walk after her serious health issues, and the songs aren’t really solely autobiographical but more general. The other development is that ‘The Returner’ has more of a groove than ‘Outside Child’, as Russell calls on the funk that was first used to describe the deep grooves of early jazz to help her celebrate and have the strength to push for future change. Recording took place in Los Angeles rather than Nashville and features her all-female band the Rainbow Coalition, with guest slots from Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark, Hozier, and Wendi & Lisa, and it was written and produced by Russell and her partner JT Nero and his brother Drew Lindsay.

Strings open the album on ‘Springtime’ which leaves the listener in no doubt that there is joy in the air, before the second part of the track ups the funk quota signalling that the boundaries of country folk and americana are being stretched. Strings again feature on the title track ‘The Returner’ which adds a real soul feeling to the folk influences. Disco certainly isn’t dead with ‘All Without Within’ and the band is slick. There is a gospel feel to ‘Demons’ as listeners are encouraged to look their demons in the face and bring them into the daylight to destroy their power. Allison Russell’s vocals have a rock & roll intensity on ‘Eve Was Black’ as she looks for an explanation for racial hatred. While a fiddle is featured on the track it has more of a drone sound to suit the subject matter. Strings are back on ‘Stay Right Here’ which invokes the dancefloor classics of the ‘70s as Russell challenges self-doubt. We stay in the disco for ‘Shadowlands’. The percussion on ‘Rag Child’ looks back to the handclapping accompaniment that can be heard in traditional music but the sound has a 21st Century sheen. ‘Snake Life’ has a chant-like quality as Russell looks forward to a future world that she has imagined for everyone. Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark, and Hozier help Allison Russell close ‘The Returner’ with ‘Requiem’.

With ‘The Returner’ Allison Russell has made a beautifully sounding record that is a joy to listen to even if the lyrics have a darker hue. It is an even better album than ‘Outside Child’ and finds Russell not only pushing the boundaries of country folk and americana but seamlessly adding the funk that is such a part of the black experience. The sound is so rich and the lyrics so detailed that ‘The Returner’ demands repeated listens and continues to reveal new insights with each play. This has to be a contender for the various Album Of The Year lists and multiple Grammy nominations and hopefully a Grammy win. She brings new insight on the state of modern society but delivers the message in a joyous musical celebration of life and hope.

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About Martin Johnson 399 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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