Walk Through Fire (Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch)
The timing of Yola’s Walk Through Fire – a title already touching church, high stakes and complicated romance, for an album smoking high on country soul – is perfect, what with the Mercury Rev do-over of Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete (and for the quick and lucky among us, the massive Bobbie Gentry box set), Magpie Diaries’ local spin, and Shelby Lynne’s soundtrack to her film, Here I Am, fresh in our minds.
As has become very clear recently, when it comes to paired genres there’s nothing more aligned, nothing more fine, than the mix of country and soul.
Drama and flared emotions, sinning and redemption, twang and shuffle, burning love and crushing loss, figure in both. They didn’t just emerge from the same roots; they were made for each other. And, in truth, made for these times as much as their birthplace in the 1960s.
Not surprisingly, it is to the 1960s and early ‘70s that the Englishwoman (full name Yolanda Carter) and her American co-writer and producer, Dan Auerbach (full name, that bloke from Black Keys), turn for sonics and stylings. There are strings and orchestras from the north, laidback denim-and-beard bands from the west coast, intense church and countrypolitan feels from the south, and a sense of the pop fandom that embraced it all further east, in the UK.
What may be surprising is how much clearer the straight-out country moments here are at times, revealing the truth in her PR that Yola is paying respect to Dolly Parton as much as Dusty Springfield.
Shady Grove, for example, has the easy charm of Dolly’s more homespun moments even if you took out the pedal steel, and It Ain’t Easier may have the structure of a soul ballad but the melody is a Parton special. If it had pitched up on one of her early ‘70s albums no one would have blinked an eye.
Even the title track, which leans as much to the kind of bluesy soul a Mavis Staples long ago made her own as it does to country, is a reminder of how Dolly – during and after her collaborations with Porter Wagoner – made broader southern music than she’s given credit.
None of which is to take away the long shadow of Ms Springfield (full name, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien).
It’s there in Deep Blue Dream, even while there’s a fiddle waltz beneath her, and in the Bacharach light dance rhythm and faint echoes of girl group sounds behind her rich tone of Shady Grove; you’ll remember the late-career control the Pet Shop Boys enjoyed with her in Love Is Tight, and in Lonely The Night, Yola’s tone is pure Dusty heart-touched-by-melancholy.
That Lonely The Night builds itself into flamboyant ‘60s dramatic pop – the kind of thing as likely to have been done by Roy Orbison as Dusty – seems only fair after the enjoyable tease of the album’s opening track, Faraway Look. That song starts with some I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself-style groundwork of low brass and thickly warm voice, with no real hint of the flourish to come, until the timpani, the string swell, and her big striding entry to the chorus, step up two gears. It could go OTT, and there wouldn’t necessarily be anything wrong with that, but neither she nor Auerbach succumb.
Caution should be noted even as Walk Through Fire is enjoyed, as Yola doesn’t have the unarguable quality of voice or songwriting that made Rumer and Shelby Lynne’s different forays into Dusty territory genuinely fabulous.
Still Gone is mild, a throwaway song near the end of the record which doesn’t prepare a good lead-in for the ‘70s soul of Keep Me Here, and Rock Me Gently is a little too betwixt/between emotionally and in its arrangement to land a solid blow. And even the best songs don’t emerge like standards-in-waiting, even as they feel like they’re hitting the right buttons, not least Ride Out In The Country.
However, there’s plenty to be going on with for now if you’ve ever found yourself in deep with both kinds of music - country and soul – and needing a fix.
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