Tami Neilson – Sassafrass!

Album Review | Outside Music | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 5/5

Sassafrass is a slang term for a sassy, feisty, spirited woman. As such it is a perfect term for this album from Tami Neilson that just glows with sass, positive attitude and spirit. Tami is a Canadian born, New Zealand resident singer songwriter and a one time member of The Neilsons. Released a few years after the excellent Don’t Be Afraid, Sassafrass! is an exciting development from that album’s brooding Sun Records, stripped back intensity. Tami’s glorious voice, slipping between Rockabilly rumble and soulful ‘60s Atlantic Records’ swagger is still the star, delivering powerful lyrics, but it is pushed further and really shines through the on the money, top class accompaniment. “Stay out of Business” is a growl for independence, Neilson is at her ‘60s pop with attitude’ best. The swagger spills out, with her laughter between lines part of the track. Brass lays down some sharp licks, the backing singers crackle with attitude and that otherworldly Pedal Steel adds an edgy Martin Denny weirdness to proceedings on this arresting opener. Tami’s voice on Bananas moves effortless between the alluring purr of Eartha Kitt and a full flight big production Shirley Bassey. The music is a glorious mash up of Country, Classic Stage Musical and Cuban Jazz. The resulting sound is a perfect accompaniment to the tall cold cocktail in a kitsch glass, an antidote to this sweltering summer. “Diamond Ring” uses a more intense soundscape, starting with an infectious, beautifully captured drum part, it builds to a smouldering dark song. Ethereal keyboards pan like distant cars in a woozily drunken dream soundtrack. Like Bobbie Gentry at her Mississippi Soul best, “A Woman’s Pain” is a stunning Country mistreated woman classic, simmering with emotion, the space around the guitars and pedal steel builds tension. Another excellent vocal from Tami makes this an album highlight. Devil in a Dress” continues that intimacy, there is a touch of Amy Winehouse louche swagger to the vocal against the Brass, but it feels more like shared influences rather than a nod from Tami. “One Thought of You” is a glorious crooned ballad with a touch of those creamy Ray Charles, Nat King Cole or more recent Amy Winehouse or Richard Hawley noir, tour de forces. “Smoking Gun” takes an intense brooding Twin Peaks atmospheric tune and just burns. Eerie backing vocals, dirty guitar and a powerful Tami vocal builds an edgy filmic classic. “Miss Jones” is a lyrical homage to Sharon Jones, whose snapping funky whose intelligent soul is a clear influence on Tami’s growing sound. This is another track that bursts from the speaker with swaggering attitude, funky rhythms and lust for life. If “Kitty Woman” has a video it starts with a Ronnette look alike putting the needle down on a Dansette Record Player, the track just extrudes that compressed 60s single vinyl magic. Upbeat and sharp, delivered breakneck like all the best 60s singles to keep it short and essential the song just screams classic pop class. “Manitoba Sunrise” as “Motel 6” is a richly titled lush sounding melancholic Country lament to the pain of being continents away from those you love. Tami Neilson yelps and croons with the heart rending intensity of Roy Orbison. Being more of a thinker than a pre-alcohol natural dancer, I appreciate the power of the upbeat numbers, but for me Tami comes alive on the ballads and “A Good Man” is one of the best. Neilson stretches out on a slower number in the room between the instruments. Tami’s long soulful notes and the late drum beat puts me very definitely in mind of Sam Cooke’s 1964 spiritual masterpiece “A Change is Gonna Come” minus those lush strings. The lyrics are, are more possibly less immediately anthemic, but there is definitely the same soulful majesty and power as Neilson testifies over an atmospheric guitar and those string sounds at the end, when they come, hit the spot perfectly. A beguiling mix of intimate and high lush production, part dark country or rockabilly swagger, part late night alcohol fuelled surreal seafront tikki bar soundtrack, this is a must hear album. If 2015’s Don’t Be Afraid didn’t convince you, then the attitude, bounce, soul and power of Sassafrass! surely demonstrates beyond all doubt that Tami Neilson is a major talent demanding of attention. The exclamation in the album title says a lot about Neilson’s determination and the power of this record.