Songs Of The Week 2021: Take 3

Updated: 5 days ago

Neil Morton


Eurydice: Katherine Priddy

Producers of Scandi noir crime dramas need look no further for their next theme tune. Katherine Priddy’s dark-edged Eurydice from her stellar debut album The Eternal Rocks Beneath is our Song Of The Week at Brooding and breathtaking.

Eurydice is one of two songs using Greek legend to inform modern relationships with erudite lyrics (the other is the equally resplendent Icarus). The eerie soundscape, with its reversed electric guitar and crackling static effects in the intro and swirling orchestration, owes a debt to Radiohead. It has an epic, otherworldly feel.

The quiet strength and grace of her pure vocal over her deftly picked guitar is intoxicating. The 26-year-old Birmingham-based Priddy grew up in the village of Alvechurch, near the Tanworth-in-Arden resting place of Nick Drake, a deep influence alongside John Renbourn, John Martyn, Joni Mitchell and Richard Thompson, with whom she has toured. Priddy took part in a well-received online tribute to Drake’s music during lockdown with Jon Wilks, Lukas Drinkwater and Jon Nice. She was delighted when Guy Garvey praised the song on his BBC 6 Music show; one can just imagine an Elbow cover.

Eurydice is a song about trust, the English literature graduate’s love of language and keen observer’s eye revisiting the tale of Orpheus rescuing his lover from the underworld to be told he can only have her if he does not look back to check she is following him...

I wish there was something to let me know you’re still there

A kiss on my neck child to know you’re still living

The sound of your voice be it cruel or forgiving

A touch of your skin or a scratch down my spine

Anything, anything, to let me know you’re still mine

And first light of morning, a moment of still

A comma, a dash, a loaded ellipsis ’til

You sink under slowly, I knew you were only

A shadow behind me... I loved you blindly

Priddy told Folk Radio when she listens to music, she hears the words first before the melody and believes her lyrics should be strong enough to stand alone. She has a gift for storytelling, true to the tradition but recast in a contemporary setting. On Icarus Mikey Kenny’s wondrous fiddle traces the ascent and descent of the central mythical character, an allegory for a lost lover always doomed to self-destruct, bent on flying too high and burning too bright (‘You’re holding the match to your own funeral pyre’).

For the beguiling opening track, Indigo, and the closing The Summer Has Flown she evokes the soundtrack of her youth, a blackbird’s good morning and goodnight. Wolf, the Emily Brontë-inspired title track of her 2018 EP, is refreshed while the haunting Ring O’ Roses reveals a remarkable maturity of writing despite it being one of her oldest compositions.

Priddy has wisely taken her time to build a repertoire and a following before delivering her first full album. With its classical allusions and modern parallels, its delicate balancing act between the tender and the troubling, The Eternal Rocks Beneath, sensitively produced by Simon Weaver, already sounds like a contender for folk album of the year.

Carry It Alone: Amy Helm

Living up to your heritage can be fraught but Amy Helm has honoured her late father Levon’s musical canon with her most accomplished work yet. Our Song Of The Week at is the engaging ballad Carry It Alone from her third solo album, What The Flood Leaves Behind.

The album, produced by fellow multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, was recorded at The Barn, Levon Helm’s studios in Woodstock and scene of his Midnight Ramble live shows from 2004 until his death in 2012. She calls it a ‘temple of music which has its own muse’. Her soprano vocal, echoing the soulfulness of dad’s heyday as a singer and drummer with The Band and beyond, attests to that description.

Helm used to play in Levon’s band during those legendary Ramble nights and returning there could have been daunting, especially performing in studio conditions without an audience. But the warmth and resonance of all that wood made it the perfect setting and ensured there was no stage fright. Kaufman, a member of Bonny Light Horseman, said it was the ‘tuning fork’ for the whole album.

‘It has an acoustic design and feel that makes music easy to play and easy to listen to,' says Helm. ‘Going back to the place where I learned so much about how to express music, how to hold myself in music, how to listen to music, it was humbling in a funny way. I could see clearly where I came from and where I am now in life. I was singing from a different place now and for a different reason.’

Helm collaborated with Zach Djanikian and Erin Rae for Carry It Alone, one of seven co-writes among the 10 tracks. Here she plays mandolin, reminiscent of dad (she also plays piano, guitar and drums) as she ponders a past relationship and her future. The opening lines have a poetic quality:

The Seneca flowed and fed the Finger Lakes

And all the life beneath

But the river is slowed

Waves don’t break they just hang on in

Hang on in the heat

Helm can burn The Barn as well as serenade it. The horns-powered Breathing is a stirring Memphis soul standout. But the gentler, more reflective tracks move you as much: Verse 23, inspired by a psalm and penned for her by MC Taylor, aka Hiss Golden Messenger, which supplies the album title; Cotton And The Cane, a painfully honest song written with Mary Gauthier about growing up around the wreckage of addiction; Calling Home (‘Dad, if you could take my hand/ You could lead me on/ You could help me to stand’); a passionate version of Swedish songwriter Daniel Norgren’s Are We Running Out Of Love?; and the gorgeous, gospel-flecked Renegade Heart.

This album is about reconnection and renewal, exuding a strong sense of optimism. ‘Because of the nature of the material, I entered into the performances with a different intention because the stories were mine. And also I think that the experience I’ve had as a touring musician working my ass off, frankly, raising two kids as a single mom, has been incredibly triumphant and also sometimes really challenging.’

If you like Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi and Allison Russell, Helms range and rich, emotional tone will reel you in. The gifts handed down are in loving care. She has a legacy of her own to finesse. What the flood leaves behind is what we’ve got to make.

Rodriguez For A Night: David Crosby

When two of your favourite songwriters join forces, you know you’re in for a treat. David Crosby asked an old hero Donald Fagen for a lyric and the CSNY veteran and former Byrd turned it into a track Steely Dan might have been proud of. Our Song Of The Week at is the funky Rodriguez For A Night from his latest album For Free.

‘I’m so honoured he gave us a set of words,’ the Californian told Rolling Stone. ‘I’d been asking him for a couple of years. We Steely Danned them right into the fucking ground. They are wonderful. It’s a story song and it’s really fun.’ The ‘us’ includes Crosby’s keyboardist son James Raymond, who helped him write and produce the album, Crosby’s fifth record since 2014, his eighth solo offering in all.

Aja and The Royal Scam are among Crosby’s pet albums and Rodriguez For A Night would have sat comfortably in Steely Dan’s back catalogue. Fagen’s typically mischievous tale tells of an insecure ‘drugstore cowboy’ who loses a girlfriend to the charms of a charismatic rival, ‘the outlaw Rodriguez’. Crosby sings: ‘It was then that her heart took flight/ Well, now I'd sell my soul if I could only be/ Rodriguez for just one night’.

Father and son wrote the melody to Fagen’s words. Being derivative is acceptable when it’s your own work you are revisiting. A case of Déjà Vu, to recall an early Crosby song. Those jazz chord progressions so familiar to Dan fans were employed by Crosby too and the addition of tenor sax, fluegelhorn and trumpet is a delight. The legendary session guitarist Dean Parks, who played with Steely Dan and Crosby & Nash, crafts a slick break on Rodriguez.

On working with Raymond, Croz says: ‘Can you imagine what it’s like to connect with your son and find out that he’s incredibly talented – a great composer, a great poet, and a really fine songwriter and musician all around? We’re such good friends and we work so well together, and we’ll each go to any length to create the highest-quality songs we can.’

Raymond, who penned River Rise with his father and Michael McDonald, has the sole writing credit for the haunting I Won’t Stay For Long. ‘It’s my favourite song on the record. I’ve listened to it 100 times now and it still reaches out and grabs me, it’s so painfully beautiful,’ says Crosby.

The title track, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s classic, is another collaboration, a duet with the gifted Sarah Jarosz, who is nearly 50 years his junior. ‘Joni’s the greatest living singer-songwriter, and For Free is one of her simplest,’ Crosby says. ‘I love what it says about the spirit of music and what compels you to play.’

Crosby turns 80 in August, and although tendinitis in his hands cramps his playing, that voice remains in remarkably good order. Joni, an old flame, will no doubt approve. Golden. Stardust.

Wild Turkey: Amythyst Kiah

Tennessee songwriter Amythyst Kiah specialises in the potency of tenderness. Her heart-rending track Wild Turkey is our Song Of The Week at It is one of several standouts from her ground-breaking roots album Wary + Strange.

Wild Turkey, which refers to a brand of bourbon, mourns the loss of her mother who took her own life in the Tennessee River when Kiah was just a teenager. Wary and strange was how she felt. The Chattanooga-raised guitarist, now 34, has carried the burden of that trauma ever since.

The effect of being submerged is subtly simulated by producer Tony Berg’s haunting arrangement...

Tried so hard to be an automaton

Body of steel and wire circuits for my backbone

‘Cause she’s never coming back

No, never coming back

Wild Turkey in the car seat

The bottle’s empty, I hope it gave her some relief

‘Cause she’s never coming back

No, never coming back

When I was seventeen

I pretended not to care

Stayed numb for years to escape despair

Kiah told NPR: ‘There was a good chunk of my life where I had my guard up. I developed very strong rejection and abandonment issues, and I put a wall around myself too. I didn’t go to therapy to talk about any of this stuff until about five years ago. I know I’m not the only person who’s had a loved one die from suicide. Knowing that, my song is something that maybe people can heal from. I know what it’s like to be othered and alienated and feel in-between, I wanted to write songs in a way where anybody can put themselves within the song.’

She studied music at East Tennessee State University, concentrating on bluegrass and old-time tunes but this album is as much southern rock and blues as folk. It’s a profoundly personal, visceral statement that explores and celebrates her standing as a black, gay woman with story-telling songs of defiance, regret and redemption. Thankfully, grief and alienation are absorbed by self-acceptance.

Other exceptional tracks are the pulsating Hangover Blues and the plaintive Firewater (each revisiting her own former dependency on alcohol – ‘How many spirits does it take to lift a spirit I don’t know’), the gospel-driven cri de coeur Tender Organs and the Grammy-nominated Black Myself, a raunchier, swaggering version of the song she introduced to roots supergroup Our Native Daughters in 2019 and the defining moment of her transformation. It was Berg who convinced her it was such an important rallying cry against systemic racism that she had to record an even more powerful rendition.

Berg’s influence as a multi-instrumentalist and creative force at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles made such an impact on Kiah with his treatment of the first completed track, Fancy Drones (Fracture Me), featuring Mellotron, flute and bass harmonica instead of bass guitar, she was persuaded to forsake her earlier versions of songs that had been written over a period of five years. Stellar guitarist Blake Mills was a valued recruit too. ‘To travel back and forth between these different sounds and ideas feels normal to me. I don’t see dividing lines between these genres. They all blur together. If you listen to early or mid-’90s grunge, a lot of those songs use big fat blues-rock riffs.’

‘The project has proved to be a rebirth,’ she wrote for No Depression. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by stories about the battle between light and dark – the naive youth faced with a path, a destiny, that is a departure from familiar people and places and into a world of unbelievable possibility. It is difficult to navigate that decision because the dark is doubt, uncertainty, and even cruel words we say to ourselves that stifle our growth. It’s a shroud that tells us that we are not worthy, even if it is clear to the people around us that we are.’

Kiah and Our Native Daughters soul sister Allison Russell, whose album Outside Child is discussed here, share the distinction of producing the most compelling records of 2021 so far. Their artistry and the courage it took to tell their stories was recognised with debut performances at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. To these ears they are already sounding like Americana artists of the year.

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