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Jamie McDell (ABC Country)

What’s going to be interesting, as the reactions to this album from New Zealand singer-songwriter Jamie McDell come in, is whether she will be claimed by the traditionalists or by the iconoclasts. Or, indeed, whether she will want to be claimed by either this far into her career.

It’s the kind of question that doesn’t really matter in most places where there is a solid body of people buying your kind of music and varieties are flavour not dichotomies. But in Australia it will matter because if you’re playing country or country-adjacent music here, that’s the kind of decision that can mean you get played on the regional radio stations or get picked up by some city “roots-based” program; whether you get the steady gigs in the outer suburbs or the smaller venues of the inner city; whether you get the hat//tight jeans supports on the national circuit and the decent size show in Tamworth next January, or you find yourself on the bill of an overseas Americana act that gets write-ups in the daily papers’ music slots that rarely go to locals.

McDell won’t necessarily make it easy for either side to choose. Across 13 songs she doesn’t go in any radical stylistic directions, nor do she and producer, Nash Chambers make any sudden moves sonically, and there are moments, like Dream Team, where everything feels awfully familiar. At her most conventional, McDell still holds back from hokum or pop dressed up in big belt buckles; at her most left-field, McDell avoids much-favoured areas like slowcore or variations on honky tonk.

A number of these songs were written with Chambers and Nashville gun, the Australian Phil Barton, and there is a studied calm and class to those that says potential radio singles, or if you are so inclined, safety-first introductions. Worst Crime, a duet with Robert Ellis, sits somewhere between Courtney Marie Andrews and Jason Isbell in its midtempo clip, unfussy instrumentation and clear ache balanced with quiet stoicism; Limousine Running, brings a bit of open sky space to its late-night country rock; Not Ready Yet hooks into an old school two-step as filtered through early Linda Ronstadt.

They’re all perfectly good songs too, especially Worst Crime, and along with the southern rock-tinged Daddy Come Pick Me Up and the lightly crunchy Botox (both McDell solo efforts) they offer smooth bridges to different audiences – the kind of move practical, sensible management would suggest and we shouldn’t begrudge, even if we’re not excited.

They are not the ones that have lasted the most with me though. Those would be Mother’s Daughter, an almost homespun ballad balanced between delicate and dramatic, contains absolutely no surprises but doesn’t put a foot wrong either; Something More, a more exposed slow turn, tells its story without any noticeable hooks and yet holds a listener tenaciously; and Where Are You Now – TD’s Song (where she is joined by Erin Rae) and Boy Into A Man, which nod to some Blue Ridge melancholy without succumbing to it.

All of them are written by her alone, none of them are the kind of things that will be snapped up by a hit-seeking programmer, and yet all could satisfy fans at either end of the local country spectrum. If they get to hear it. If they haven’t already ruled her out for being part of the “other” scene.

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