Kill Or Be Kind is a grower. I’ve been living with it for a couple of months now, and it’s a distinctive album that defies easy labels, gradually disclosing its subtleties over time. It’s the product of an evolutionary journey on which Samantha Fish has stretched and deepened her vocabulary until she can now command her own mature sound with confidence.
As a key to getting inside Kill Or Be Kind, get your ears around ‘Love Your Lies’, the shortest and most straightforward track on offer. The first time I heard it spring out of the starting blocks, I said to myself, “Buzzcocks! With Chrissie Hynde on vocals!” That may seem like a daft response to this fizzing little rock’n’roll firecracker, on which Fish lets loose a whoop of delight as she launches into a brief, scorching guitar solo that will just beg for her to let rip live. But the Chrissie Hynde reference is apposite all the same, because Kill Or Be Kind achieves just the kind of crossover quality that The Pretenders nailed in their heyday, encapsulating soul, R’n’B, classic pop and rock’n’roll with élan.
|Samantha Fish - crossover success beckons|
And to underline the point, the outstanding ‘Fair-weather’ is a simple and lovely song lamenting the decline of a friendship. Resting on tinkling ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ guitar notes, it features an at times breathy vocal from Fish set against the merest touches of organ and murmurs of horns, before being elevated by a key change as Fish delivers a rueful wave goodbye at the receding relationship. Simple as it is, the emotional connection is profound.
A brace of songs reach back to Chills And Fever and translate its soul and R’n’B vibe into originals with a modern feel. 'Kill Or Be Kind' itself sets the tone, with some excellent rubber band bass providing the basis for Fish to open up with deceptively girlish vocals – deceptive because this is a lyric with a very Fish-like dark twist to it, revealing not a "goody-good-good girl", but a tough cookie. ‘Try Not To Fall In Love With You’ is a dreamier affair, sweet and soulful, with a neat horn arrangement, and twinkling guitar notes providing texture ahead of a scorching solo.
There’s nothing here squarely in the acoustic/Americana vein of Belle Of The West. But ‘Dreamgirl’ takes the romantic feel of ‘Belle Of The West’ itself, and gives it a more sleek modern sound, with some double-tracked vocals, a woozy slide reading of the melody, and squiggling noises in the background combining to add a phantasmagorical tinge to proceedings. And the following ‘She Don’t Live Here Anymore’ blends Americana and soul stylings, with a twanged descending guitar motif, subtle Memphis horns, and a restrained slide solo over tinkling keys, while Fish holds herself back rather than wigging out vocally.
‘Love Letters’, like the title track, offers a love-turned-sour lyrical juxtaposition, mirrored musically by the contrast of sweet verses and a bitter chorus, with sighs of slide guitar and another helping of appealing bass. And ‘Dirty’ is another reflection on distasteful relationship behaviour, setting out with a flurry of understated organ, ticking drums and sparse bass notes, before Fish’s guitar paves the way for a finely judged burst of vocal passion.
Which leaves a trio of rockers in the form of ‘Bulletproof’, ‘Watch It Die’ and ‘You Got It Bad’ to add some heft. ‘Bulletproof’ opens the show with a bullet, as it were, its cryptic lyric about the challenge of standing up for oneself played out via a delicate falling melody on the verses and a full throttle roar on the chorus. It’s both urgent and tense, gains weight as it progresses, and features a blistering cigar box slide solo – Fish is now a veritable slide guitar demon. ‘Watch It Die’ is all buzzsaw riff and flaring horns, with a squealing solo and a bridge of interesting sighs, as it were, while Fish soars vocally on the chorus as only she can. ‘You Got It Bad’, bringing down the curtain, is a layered chunk of moody blues-rock, with a brooding guitar figure, a rousing vocal on the chorus, and a repeated slide refrain that ushers in a scraping slide solo.
The songs and musicianship on Kill Or Be Kind are top notch. Fish’s guitar is sharp and multi-faceted, and her vocals are, as ever, astonishing. Ultimately it’s an album to captivate not just the ears, but the emotions. The fuse has been burning on her career for a while now, but I have a feeling that Kill Or Be Kind may be about to detonate a Samantha Fish explosion.
Kill Or Be Kind is released by Rounder Records on 20 September.
Read the exclusive Blues Enthused interview with Samantha Fish here.