Tami Neilson “Sassafrass” (Outside Music, 2018)

Born in Canada, now based in New Zealand, Tami Neilson, confidently presents her sixth album. Tami, part of a musical family, has had a  part in the writing of all the songs here, some with her brother, Joshua Neilson and one with her late father, leader of The Neilsons, a Canadian family band active in the 90’s with whom Tami played from the age of 12.

Above all, this is an important album that challenges the current social climate, and her own experiences as a woman, a mother and a daughter. The title of the album is perfect. Here is an experienced, much-admired singer worldwide, who addresses, wholeheartedly, the treatment and proper acceptance of women in life today.

‘Stay Outta My Business’ is the perfect sassy start to the collection. Tami, obviously, is someone who means business, standing up powerfully to be heard, someone who can sing with full range, and command an audience. It is significant that she is someone who can write unforgettable and catchy songs. In this song, for instance, when dealing with an adversary the words are all there:  shakin’, frownin’, tongue a-waggin’, eyes judging, elbows nudging.  She is able to stand up to all this! From the start, one is captured entirely by Tami’s attitude.

And so the performance proceeds. ‘Bananas’ with a change in rhythm, calypso-like, has a Caribbean atmosphere, and there is a subtle reference to the controversial idea in country music circles that lady singers are the tomatoes, while the men provide the lettuce. Don’t ask! Anyway, Tami has humour enough to make the ironic reference to the business: “A big boy’s game” with the idea of “reeling when you hit the glass ceiling.”  And all the time, just accepting the “bananas, bananas, bananas.”

The next two songs deal explicitly with pain. In ‘Diamond Ring,’ Tami intones the idea thatI don’t need the pain that loving brings”  despite all the trappings of an affair: “black leather shoe,” “pinstriped suit” and the ring itself. Then, in ‘A Woman’s Pain,’ with its reference to Tami’s first nation grandmother, with the family tragedies two generations back, and the bleak reference to “The hand that holds the power assigns the blame /And this whole world turns on a woman’s pain.”

This is one of those moments (and there are many) when the arrangement of the song underlines its strength. Here it is Neil Watson’s pedal steel, providing ideal background in this context as the acoustic guitar finds a balance between the bass and strings. In fact, all the band should be praised: Joe McCallum (drums), Mike Hall (bass), and Brett Adams (guitar). They have toured with Tami around the world over the past few years.

Tami has a deep and moving interest in musicians. The subject of ‘Miss Jones’ (“Big mouth, talkin’ sass / Shinin’ with her big brass”) is Sharon Jones who sang with The Dap Kings. If you don’t know of Miss Jones, look her up at once, for here was a guiding light for Tami. Also, listen very carefully to ‘Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6.’ This song was written in memory of Glenn Campbell on the day that he died. “Oh lonesome prairie wind/ Won’t you blow me home again.” It’s all there: the loneliness of being on the road, all the yearning, coupled with memories of Canada. This is a touchstone track, to revisit again and again, with the sound of that refrain played on that bass guitar…every bit as moving as that solo on ‘Wichita Lineman.’ Reason alone for purchasing this album. The power of the last track, ‘Good Man’ only confirms that feeling. What a record!

9/10

Summary

Tami, at her sassy best, has a winner here

Author: Dave Clarke

I have always loved Americana music, even before it had a name. I've been a teacher (secondary and tertiary) all my professional life.

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