A good album that lacks immediate impact.
Jill Andrews isn’t that well known in the UK but her profile has been steadily growing, particularly back in her native U.S.A. She was a founding member of folk/alt-country band The Everybodyfields but has been working solo since leaving them in 2009, as well as being one half of the duo Hush Kids, alongside Peter Groenwald, a creative partnership that has been running since 2018. Significantly, a number of her compositions, mostly co-writes, have been used in recent U.S. TV series, and it’s this market that much of her current output seems particularly aimed at.
‘Modern Age’, is her first full-length studio recording in some three years, and is her eighth solo recording since 2009 (she has also made an album and EP as Hush Kids). It’s a long way from her work with The Everybodyfields and has something of a Carole King feel to it, in that it’s reminiscent of that slightly pop-tinged, sophisticated music that Goffin and King were putting out towards the end of their time at the Brill Building.
Williams has described this album as “a juxtaposition of childhood and adulthood. It’s the simplicities and complexities that surround both. And figuring out where I belong within it all.” It certainly has a looking back on the past feel to it, with album track titles like ‘80s Baby’, ‘Better Life’, ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’ you sense an autobiographical seam running through this album and, listening to this recording, it’s easy to see why her music has found its way onto the soundtrack to American TV series such as Grey’s Anatomy, This Is Us, Nashville, and Wynonna Earp, to which she composed the theme. There’s an easy surety to many of these tracks but also a slight anonymity to them that make her work perfectly suited to a TV audience. That’s not to say they’re bad songs, quite the opposite, but they exude a sort of familiarity that makes them seem like they’ve been around for a while and that you’re already aware of them. It’s a useful skill to have when writing soundtrack music. Whether it’s as useful when writing for a solo album is something that you might start to question when, after repeated plays, nothing seems to stick that well in the memory. It all sounds fresh and interesting when it’s playing but once the music stops, it doesn’t stay with you so well.
The album opens with ‘80s Baby’, a definite statement of intent. This song is about nostalgia and how things used to be – “I’m an 80s Baby, I’ve been thinking lately, how much has changed”. It’s a well-written song, looking back on the transitions through childhood and the change from being a girl to a young woman. The plaintive chorus phrase, “I’d rather you called instead of texting me, I want to hear your voice”, sums up a time when nonverbal communication was still in its infancy and we spoke rather than sent emojis. It’s a solid start to the album and a track that builds well, full of swirling keyboards that might just be a mellotron (very 80s!).
This album really is about looking back at past lives and not always in a positive way. ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’ seems particularly bleak, “If the lining’s ever silver it’s impossible to find/ Your glass can be half full but your cup’s the empty kind. You’re always in the wrong place at the wrong time” and ‘Kids’ seems like a new take on Janis Ian’s ‘At Seventeen’, with its reflections on the cool kids and the mean kids and the sad kids and the observation that, “When you’re growing up you’re feeling all the changes./ We all go through so many different phases/ And life hasn’t always been kind./ Gotta give it time, time, time.”
There’s some great writing on show here and it’s hard to determine why these songs don’t seem to stick in the memory more. What is very memorable is Andrews’ voice, which really is quite beautiful. It shows particularly well on the life gone wrong song, ‘Better Life’, floating just above the delicate backing, this is a finely woven tapestry of a song, piano and keyboard surges weaving behind that voice, with occasional accents from a pedal steel guitar and Andrews’ voice at turns breathless and barely heard but then pushing into the foreground. It’s a highlight of the album.
Reading the first part of this review, you’d be forgiven for thinking this album is all doom and gloom and it would be unfair to leave you with that impression. There are plenty of songs that look back with affection. There’s the positivity of long-distance love song ‘Connection’ and album closer, ‘Boundless Love’ is as emotionally upbeat as it gets and ends the recording on a genuinely positive note.
There’s no question that this is a very good album. Jill Andrews has a great voice and there’s some excellent musicianship on show here, not least from producer and multi-instrumentalist, Lucas Morton, who has crafted a very accomplished and interesting album, it’s just a shame that those songs, good though they are, don’t have a more immediate impact. This album is a slow burn and does get stronger with each listen. The concern is that, in the current market, will people take the time to listen to a collection of songs that don’t have immediate traction? It’s to be hoped so, as the album deserves to do well but, with so much music vying for our attention these days, can slow and steady still win the race?