Saturday, November 4, 2017

Samantha Fish - Belle Of The West

Samantha Fish may rock’n’roll and wring that guitar neck with the best of them, but there’s also been plenty of evidence of her softer side over the years.  Exhibit A, your honour – the smoky and sultry ‘Feelin’ Alright’ on her debut album.  And Exhibit B, if I may – her second album Black Wind Howlin’, which featured the delicate ‘Over You’ and the shuffling, fiddle-backed ‘Last September’.  Then there is Exhibit C - the numerous excursions into acoustic territory on Wild Heart, culminating in the heart-melting ‘I’m In Love With You’.  I submit that it’s an open and shut case – Samantha Fish is a natural at this Americana business.
Samantha Fish - Just your average Americana guitar pickin' girl next door
Pic by Chris Bradley
So it seems entirely logical that she’s now gone the whole hog and devoted her latest album to the genre – even if it’s her second album of the year, and a pin-balling change of direction from the urban R’n’B of the preceding Chills & Fever.
For Belle Of The West young Samantha has hooked up once again with Wild Heart producer Luther Dickinson, and this time roped in several of his regular North Mississippi compadres for back-up, such as Lightnin’ Malcolm, Jimbo Mathus, and drummer/vocalist and fife player Sharde Thomas – among others.  And the results are top notch.
Not immediately perhaps, as ‘American Dream’ and ‘Blood In The Water’ come across as appetisers, rather than the full blown main course.  But Fish and her pals really hit their stride on ‘Need You More’.  Over a simple, shuffling drum pattern, the arrangement is distinguished by marvellous moans of violin from Lille Mae, and it has a lovely melody that’s a perfect home for Fish’s voice.
‘Cowtown’ is a more robust effort, with some rippling electric guitar, swinging drums and “bye bye baby” lyrics – I think Fish has a thing about heading for the county line.  But ‘Daughters’ and ‘Don’t Say You Love Me’ get back on the acoustic track.  The former is built of simple, warm piano chords from Mathus, gradually augmented by weeping fiddle, and firm, pushing drums that create tension before the pace picks up on the chorus.  The latter is more-ish to say the least.  Again underpinned by piano and muted fiddle, it features some interesting phrasing and a yearning chorus, as well as some very Sam Fish vocal twists including a couple of steepling long notes.  Oh yes, and there’s a subtle electric guitar break for good measure.
If the first half of the album is comprised wholly of Fish originals, the second half blends in three damn fine covers, leading off with the title track from Jimbo Mathus. It’s a lilting slice of country, introduced by the lines “On the Vermilion River/On a packet bound for St Claude/Rides the lady we love best”.  Oh Jimbo, you dog – you know how to paint a scene don’t you?  And Sam Fish knows how to convey the mood too, over moonlit violin and faintly Hispanic guitar.
Understandably R.L. Burnside’s ‘Poor Black Mattie’ isn’t as wild as the North Mississippi Allstars reading on Shake Hands With Shorty.  But it’s still an irresistibly rattling, body-twitching romp through the hill country, on which Fish duets with Lightnin’ Malcolm, yielding the foreground to him.
She duets again, with Lillie Mae on the latter’s ‘Nearing Home’, to even better effect.  It’s a restrained but gorgeous affair, on which Fish and Mae’s hushed voices wash over simple acoustic guitar and mournful fiddle.
In between there’s ‘No Angels’, with tick-tock drums and warm piano in the background, pulsing upright bass from Amy LaVere, an attractive melody and a gradual gathering of voices.  And to close things out there’s the brief belter that is ‘Gone For Good’, a cheery affair right from the pre-song studio chat.  It combines a bouncing rhythm with picked and slide guitar in a Hill Country-ish rendition of a very Fish-style melody, recalling one of my favourite songs of hers, ‘Kickaround’.

Is Belle Of The West as good as that other quick-fire Dickinson acoustic collaboration, Ian Siegal’s Picnic Sessions?  Perhaps not, but it’s not far off.  It’s a great ensemble affair in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – although Lillie Mae does make a signal contribution.  But it also demonstrates once again that Sam Fish is a standout singer, with an astonishing vocal toolkit allied to the ability to invest real personality in the material.  And she can write a damn good tune too.  The verdict is in.  Sam Fish and Americana – oh yeah.

Read Blues Enthused's exclusive interview with Samantha Fish here.

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