Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid

Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 4/5

Two of the most arresting albums to pass through my hands in the last few years, this album and Aldous Harding’s debut have had one interesting thing in common.  Musically, while having a certain sonic charge and eerie late night ‘hairs on the back of the neck’ atmosphere in common they both inhabit different, if overlapping worlds.  What they have in common is geography, that they were recorded at the same studios, The Sitting Room, in Lyttleton, New Zealand.  Having been to Lyttleton, following the bus route out of Christchurch to its end, to see what was there.  I can vouch, that while having a David Lynch raw charm, it isn’t a big place and if it buzzes and crackles with creative buzz (which it obviously does), then my radar was clearly off that day.  But on the strength of this singularly powerful album and Harding’s folk noir slowburner, then it’s only a matter of time before there are tour buses and a steady stream of musician hopefuls gathering at what could turn out to be a ‘through the looking glass’ antipodean home of the hits.  From the power of the voice, to the space around the percussion on tracks like “Bury My Body”, or the sound of the room on “Don’t Be Afraid”, this is an album that draws its synergy from the power generated by excellent musicians, a fine studios and top notch production and engineering.  Like the Ragged Glory era Neil Young, Don’t Be Afraid’s title track opens with valve amp hum and the ambience of guitar and voice filling a room.  Dave Khan and Delaney Davidson’s guitars simmer and shimmer with 50s Sun Studios energy behind Tami Neilson’s mighty biblically proportioned roar of a voice. Imagine the raw power of Sister Rosetta Tharpe meeting the velvet perfection of jazz singer Nancy Wilson and you are not far wrong.  The guitars and Tami’s vocal compete to see who can send the most shivers down the spine.  As an album opener it’s a strong one, crackling with sinister energy and a deep significance as it’s the final song that Tami’s musician father Ron wrote.  “Holy Moses” continues the sonic attack, as if The White Stripes and Alabama Shakes were playing together, with a music that is soulful, spiritual and electric brutal at the same time.  Neilson and band power through, with a sound that is vinyl warm retro and modern raw at the same time.  The lyrics are gospel and blues with some classic call response chorus and the angriest guitars in the world.  Lonely turns everything down to an intense simmer with pedal steel and a keening vocal that is like Amy Winehouse at her retro crooning best or the best of early kd lang.  “So Far Away” seethes with a stately power and an effortless swaggering blend of ancient and modern that it took Imelda May ten years of albums to build to.  Country, Blues and Rockabilly it’s all here.  “If Love Were Enough” is a slow masterpiece, Neilson’s croon beautifully stretches out time, moment by moment over huge guitar chords and a drum beat that sounds like a slow waltzing steam train.  “Bury My Body” is carried by the voice and the most arresting drum beat since Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac laid down “Looking For Somebody” in 1968.  Canadian born, New Zealand based singer-songwriter Tami Neilson has built a reputation for a soulful impassioned vocals.  Originally a member of Canadian family group The Neilsons with her father Ron, this album is shot with his memory.  Sleeve notes that give songs a poignancy, songs that are co-writes of pieces he started, recollections of his enthusiasm for pieces recorded.  The album opens with the last song he ever wrote and closes with his demo of the same number, his passing gives an extra gravitas and an extra weight to the lyric.  “The First Man”, the final full track on Don’t Be Afraid, written by Tami and her brother Jay is a powerful love song from a daughter to her father.  Soulful, and heartfelt, its calm simplicity compared to the rest of the album adds to its intensity. This smouldering, dark album adds a layer of smoke and power to Tami’s earlier outings and is a fine point to discover a developing talent if you haven’t already.  Favourite track, it’s hard to pick one from this classic album that isn’t.